Nikon D500 and 16-80mm DX Lens Review


Nikon D500, front and back

In August 2007, Nikon introduced the D3 and D300 dual simultaneously. The D3 being Nikon’s first full-35mm-frame (FX format) digital SLR with a break through in high-ISO results restored Nikon’s position in the top echelon of sports and wildlife cameras. The D300 was a DX-format (APS-C) alternative that is more affordable but still shared some feature such as the then brand new Multi-CAM 3500 AF module. At the time the D300 was very popular. Nikon was manufacturing some 80K D300 bodies a month at their Thailand factory and sold a million units within a year.

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However, after a minor upgrade to the D300S in 2009, with essentially the same electronics but adding a second memory card slot for an SD card, basic video capability, and a silent mode, there has been no true successor to the D300/D300S for years, while the D3 went through several upgrade cycles with the D3S, D4, and D4S. Meanwhile, Nikon introduced a few $1200 DX bodies such as the D7100 and D7200 and referred to them as their “flagship” DX cameras.

Therefore, it was quite a surprise that on January 5, 2016, Nikon once again simultaneously introduced the D5 and D500 dual, sharing a lot of features such as another new AF module, the Multi-CAM 20000 (Multi-CAM 20K). Since I am very much into wildlife photography, this is very welcome, although unexpected, news. This review is based on my experience with two different D500 bodies and a 16-80mm E DX kit lens. I had the opportunity to take a D500, along with a D5, to southern Africa for three weeks from June to July, 2016 and used them extensively during safari in Botswana.

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Key Nikon D500 Specifications

  • Sensor 23.5mm x 15.7mm DX (APS-C) format, 20.9MP (5568.x 3712), Nikon Expeed V image-processing engine
  • ISO range from 100 to 51200, with an extended range from Lo 1 to Hi 5.
  • 3.2" articulated LCD screen, similar to the one on the Nikon D750. Additionally, the LCD on the D500 has additional touch screen capability.
  • Auto Focus: Nikon’s Multi-CAM 20000 (20K) AF module with 153 AF points, 99 of those are cross type.
  • Frame rate: 10 fps using the entire DX frame and only the EN-EL15 battery inside the camera.
  • Shutter rated to 200K actuations
  • Highest shutter speed 1/8000 sec, flash sync 1/250 sec
  • 4K video
  • Dual memory card slots, XQD + SD, SD slot UHS-II compatible
  • Battery: Nikon EN-EL15 Li-ion battery, better with the current Li-ion 20 type
  • Vertical Grip/Power Pack: MB-D17 (optional at additional cost), can accept another EN-EL15 battery, an EN-EL18 battery for the D4, D4S, and D5, or 8 AA batteries
  • No pop-up flash
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Controls

Control Buttons

The D500 follows Nikon’s pro DSLR controls that have been on the likes of the D300, D700, D800, and D810. The main departure on the D5 and D500 is that Nikon places the ISO button behind the shutter release button, hence it is now possible to use the right index finger to hold down the ISO button, and then use the middle finger to rotate the sub-command dial to switch on and off auto ISO or use the thumb to rotate the main command dial to change ISO, all with just the right hand. The video record button is moved over to the left of the shutter release, hence the exposure mode button (P,A,S,M) is now pushed to the left of the viewfinder. Also on the left side is the metering mode button (matrix, center weighted, and spot).

Programmable Buttons

One common complaint about the D7000 series, the D600/D610 and D750 is the lack of a dedicated AF-ON button, which thankfully is available on the D500. However, Nikon puts a programmable, D4-style sub-selector at where the AE-L/AF-L (auto exposure and auto focus lock) button is normally placed. And besides two programmable buttons in front around the lens mount, Nikon has added another programmable Fn2 button on the back side. One needs to check Custom Setting Group F to see all the possibilities to customize a D500. For example, for birds in flight, I would normally use 25-point AF, but I have programmed a front button so that I can use my middle finger to switch to auto-area AF instantly.

Grip

The grip on the D500 feels a lot like the one on the Nikon D750; it is very deep and to me, extremely comfortable. When the D750 was new, I asked several people from a 11-year-old girl with a small hand to some tall men to hold the D750. It was unanimous among the small sample of people that it is very comfortable. I haven’t repeated that experiment but I think most user should also like the grip on the D500.

Touch Screen

The D500 has a touch sensitive LCD screen. For those of us who have been using smart phones, it is nice to be use your finger to swipe the screen to review images and also enlarge them with a two-finger motion. One thing to keep in mind is that by default, the D500 would need an Asian-style, left-to-right finder motion to change to the next image, while most Europeans would use a right-to-left motion. Fortunately, you can use the Setup Menu, Touch Control to select which direction to swipe is more naturally to you.

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Auto Focus

After over eight years with the Multi-CAM 3500 as its top-of-the-line AF module, Nikon introduces the Multi-CAM 20000 (20K) with the D5 and D500. While I welcome more AF points, the most important improvement is the addition of new cross-type AF points towards the right and left edges of the frame. Besides the D500, I also use a D5 for wildlife photography. As expected, AF on the Multi-CAM 20000 is the best I have seen from Nikon. I capture a lot of birds in flight, and success rate is now very high.

After the D5’s introduction, Nikon subsequently added a 9-point AF option via firmware upgrade, but to date, the D500 still only has the original 25, 72, and 157-point options. The Auto Area AF mode is now useful when a bird is in the sky without background distraction, as the D5 and D500 can track that kind of subject very well in the Auto Area mode. However, when a bird is small and there is background such as trees, one is still better off involving fewer AF points. In all of these modes, Nikon’s AF module tends to focus onto whatever is closest to the camera. In other words, if there is vegetation in front, the D500 will likely focus on that instead of your intended subject.

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High ISO Results

High-ISO results on digital cameras have been improving gradually since the very beginning. With the benefit of the latest technology, the D500 has among the best high-ISO results among DX/APS-C-format digital cameras. I have compared it side-by-side against Nikon’s D7200, which Nikon introduced in 2015, not quite a year before the D500, and the D500 is perhaps slightly better.

However, sensor real estate continues to play a major role in high-ISO results. Since FX has over twice as much sensor area than DX/APS-C, they gather more light and therefore provide better results at high-ISO. I have compared ISO 6400 from the D500 against the FX-format Nikon D750, and the D750 is still better even at ISO 12800. At ISO 25600, the D750 seems to be slightly behind the D500 at ISO 6400. In other words, a modern FX body such as the D750 is around 1.5 to 2 stops better than the D500.

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Memory Cards and RAW Buffer:

The D500 comes with two memory card slots, one XQD and one SD. The latter is compatible with the Secure Digital Ultra-High-Speed II (UHS-II) standard. UHS-II SD cards have a second row of electronic contacts for faster data transfer.

XQD

Typically I capture lossless, 14-bit RAW files to optimize image quality while keeping image file size manageable. If one uses the latest Lexar 2933x or Sony G Series 400 MB/sec XQD cards, the D500 can write to the XQD card faster than it can capturing RAW files at 10 fps. Hence the RAW buffer size doesn’t really matter, and the maximum number of RAW files the D500 can capture in a row is merely limited by the artificial 200-frame restriction, such that if the shutter release button is held down unintentionally, the D500 wouldn’t fire indefinitely until either the memory card is full or the battery runs out.

While XQD cards used to be very expensive, as recently as when Nikon announced the D500 in January 2016, prices have come down significantly the subsequent 3, 4 months. At this point a fast XQD card costs about the same as a state-of-the-art UHS-II SD card with the same capacity.

I have compared the write speed among three Sony 400 MB/sec XQD cards: 32G, 64G, and 128G. I found no noticeable speed difference among them. I repeated that experiment among 32G, 64G, and 128G Sandisk SD cards, and I also found no difference. I have seen claims that high-capacity cards tend to be slower, but I find no evidence of that on the D500.

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SD Cards

In 14-bit, lossless mode, the D500 has a RAW buffer of 29 frames. In other words, regardless of how slow your memory card is, the D500 can store at least 29 frames at maximum 10 fps before it has to slow down.

For those who capture a lot of consecutive frames in “machine gun” style in action photography, it is best to use the fastest XQD card. However, if you always use the backup mode to store each image onto both cards as I do, the slower SD card will determine how quickly the D500 empties its RAW buffer. The fastest SD card I have used so far is the Lexar 2000X UHS-II type, which can capture 78 RAW frames at 10 fps before slowing down, followed by the SanDisk’s 280 MB/sec UHS-II card that can capture 60. However, if you don’t push things to the limit much, a regular UHS-I SD card should be just fine with 45 frames before slowing down.

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Other RAW Options

If one select lossy compressed RAW, the RAW buffer goes up to 37 frames. If one is pressed for storage space, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this option. My experience is that quality degradation from compressed RAW is difficult to notice.

One issue to keep in mind is that on the D500, once the ISO reaches 25600 or above, the RAW buffer size drops from 29 frames (for uncompressed and lossless compressed) to only 12 frames. This reduction includes setting auto ISO to maximum 25600 or above, even thought the actual ISO used is below 25600. Apparently the D500 needs to reserve buffer space to perform high-ISO noise reduction and other processing. If one is capturing at a high frame rate, please keep in mind to set the high ISO limit wisely.

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Quick Release Plates

For each DSLR I own, I usually purchase a dedicated, Arca-Swiss-style quick-release plate to securely mount the camera body onto a tripod head. Kirk Enterprise and Really Right Stuff (RRS) sell those quick-release plates, and they usually come as a bottom plate or as an L plate such that one can mount the camera body either horizontally or vertically onto the tripod.

I would get an L plate for cameras for landscape photography. The D500 is my wildlife and action camera such that I mainly use it with super telephoto lenses, which have their own tripod collar and quick-release plate. Hence I only got a bottom plate for my D500, mainly to mount that body onto a tripod for video capture.

It turns out that Really Right Stuff’s quick-release plate BD500 for the D500 has an interesting design. It has a slot to store the Allen wrench hex tool inside the plate, and the plate uses a magnet to hold the tool in place. I really like this design such that I won’t leave home without the hex tool in case I need to either tighten or remove the plate in the field.

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EN-EL15 Battery Exchange

Nikon first introduced the EN-EL15 batteries in 2010 along with the D7000 to replace the EN-EL3e battery, which has exposed electronics contacts and is no longer compliant with Japanese safety standards since November, 2011. The early EN-EL15 batteries are of type Li-ion 01. However, in 2013, Nikon switched to a new Li-ion 20 type. While physically the same and are compatible, the old Li-ion 01 variation does not perform as well with the D500 and have a shorter battery life. I have used those old batteries on the D500 and I thought they were fine, but Nikon has gone the extra mile to exchange the old batteries with new ones for D500 owners. However, on other Nikon cameras that use the EN-EL15, there seems to be no difference between the Li-ion 01 and Li-ion 20 variations.

In the US, you need to provide a receipt for your D500 purchase to be eligible for the battery exchange, and the limit is exchanging 5 old batteries per D500. I have exchanged my batteries and it was a quick process. Upon receiving my old batteries, Nikon USA shipped me the new ones within a couple of days.

Please follow these links to Nikon web sites for more information on the battery exchange:


16-80mm Zoom at 80mm on D500

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The 16-80mm/f2.8-4 E DX AF-S VR Lens

The 16-80mm E DX lens introduced in early 2015 is a fine “pro-sumer” lens. It is roughly the equivalent to the 24-120mm/f4 AF-S VR for FX. Both lenses are 5x zooms with a plastic barrel that extends in two stages going toward the long end. Inevitably, any 5x zoom is going to involve plenty of optical compromises, but the 16-80 DX is quite sharp from wide to long. At 16mm, edge quality is still very respectable, but there is pronounced barrel distortion, as expected. Chromatic aberration is well controlled. Also as expected, there is noticeable vignetting with the aperture wide open. It improves by stopping down one stop and all vignetting pretty much disappears by two stops down from wide open.

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Please keep in mind that a 5x pro-sumer zoom is never going to match the optical and construction quality of a high-end, constant f2.8 zoom such as Nikon’s 24-70mm/f2.8 E AF-S VR. However, having a plastic barrel makes the lens lighter, and the 5x zoom range makes it highly convenient.

Overall, the 16-80mm E DX is a very fine, general-purpose lens that covers from moderate wide to short tele. It is also quite fast at f2.8 on its wide end. If you are getting the D500 for wildlife or sports photography in conjunction with super telephoto lenses as I do, the 16-80mm zoom lens is an excellent “catch all” lens to round up the wide end.

At the initial $1060 price tag, I find the 16-80mm E DX fairly expensive. However, as a kit with the D500, one can get this lens for merely an additional $560, making it quite a bargain.

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Conclusions:

After skipping the entire ‘D400’ generation and 8+ years since the introduction of the D300, Nikon has finally introduced its true successor, another “pro-sumer” grade DX-format DSLR that has state-of-the-art AF and a fast frame rate for action photography. For wildlife photographers who tend to use a lot of super-telephoto lenses from 300mm and up and budget-conscious sports photographers who would rather not spend over $6000 on a D4 or D5, the D500 should like a dream come true.

However, Nikon skipped an entire ‘D400’ generation because they have been emphasizing FX to the higher-end photographers, and there are a lot more Nikon F-mount lenses at every budget level designed for FX. And FX continues to have superior high-ISO results due to its larger sensor real estate.

Unlike back in 2007, when Nikon’s only FX DSLR was the $5000 D3, there are a number of affordable options for full-35mm-frame digital, such as Nikon’s D610 and D750, not to mention many others in the used market. Therefore, for more general purposes photography including studio work, portrait, event, wedding, landscape, and news photography, FX is still the better way to go. The D500 is a more specialized tool for wildlife and action photography, but it is an excellent one for those purposes.

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    • Shun,

      Thanks for the detailed review. I found it very helpful.

      Like you, I am primarily interested in wild-life photography and for other scenarios like shooting the Northern Lights, Milky Way etc.: basically scenarios where high ISO and high FPS both would be extremely handy and possibly critical. Printing wise: I rarely exceed 11x14. 

      What are your thoughts on the D500 on that front? I know Nikon is rightfully marketing the fast AF of the D500, but I have seen variable reviews on the high ISO. 

      With all the above in mind, would you still rank the D500 higher than the D750 (and maybe even a D4)? Those 3 are the only cameras that I am considering for a future purchase (the D4 not as much since it is still well in excess of $2K). 

      Thanks.

      Avi

       

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    • The D500 has among the best high-ISO results for DX/APS-C, but you can't beat basic physics. FX has more sensor real estate and will always be better for high ISO as long as you compare technology from the same era. I also have a D750 and continue to use it frequently, but for different subjects.

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