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Field Review: Nikon D500

Wetpixel Field Review: Nikon D500

Alex Mustard on the D500:

I made the mistake of coming to the D500 from the D5, so initially I was a little underwhelmed. But after a couple of dives I really started to gel with the camera and began to notice where it outperforms any DX (1.5x crop) sensor Nikon SLR and almost all FX (full frame) Nikons.

A close up portrait of a large female orange painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus). Nikon D500, Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR, Saga Trio +5, 1/250@f18, ISO160

The most obvious character trait is that the D500 feels fast, ready to focus in an instant, ready to fire off a batch of photos (Adam gave it to me on Continuous Low!) almost as soon as you brain thinks shoot and seemingly before your finger has responded and pulled back on the shutter! This gives it a pro feel, ready to do that most important thing for any camera – which is to get the shot.

I am a big fan of crop sensor SLRs, arguing that they are the best all-rounders as underwater cameras. Camera manufacturers make far more money from selling a full frame SLR, than a crop sensor, so it is no surprise that their marketing departments are motivated to make us all want the full frame variants.

A veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) rears up for a better view as it returns to its den in a broken green beer bottle, half buried in the sandy seabed. d500, Nikon 60mm f2.8, 1/40@f8, ISO400

But if we consider the on paper advantages of full frame: better high ISO performance, less depth of field when the lens is open, more resolution, better image quality - most are insignificant in the field. High ISO is only relevant for wide angle and here full frame cameras give away more than a stop of their advantage because of the need to stop the lens down further than a crop sensor camera, to achieve the same corner sharpness behind a dome port. The narrow depth of field possible with a full frame camera is also not relevant underwater because so few underwater images are taken with fully open apertures. Resolution and image quality are also pretty moot, because few of us exploit these to the full with the ways we use our images. It is one of the reasons why Nikon have dropped from 24MP to 20MP from the D7200 to D500. In short, when these factors are taken away, it is the advantages of the smaller sensor, smaller lenses, lenses better suited to underwater shooting, smaller, cheaper cameras and housings, that actually make DX more attractive than FX for Nikon users.

A portrait of a estuarine stonefish (Synanceia horrida) taken at night, illuminated with a single strobe. D500, Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR, 1/250@f14, ISO400

Compare the D500 and D810 for underwater shooting and the D500 outperforms the D810 in AF performance and in action – in other words getting the shot. And while the D810 has better image quality in theory, this and its other advantages are rarely realized underwater.

One factor I did not have time to look during my day with the D500 in Lembeh was diffraction. When Nikon increased the resolution of their DX sensors to 24MP with the D7100, diffraction finally became significant to underwater images, particularly in the realm of super macro shooting. With the D7100 (24MP) the effect of diffraction is visible from f/16 and starts to limit the resolution significantly above f/22. The slightly lower resolution of the D500 should mean that we won’t notice diffraction as early, but I didn’t make the tests to find out.

D500, Nikon 60mm f2.8, prototype Saga trio lens, 1/250@f9, ISO100

Conclusion

To cut to the chase, the D500 is, in my opinion, the best camera that Nikon currently make for underwater use. To be sure, there are some specific things that it does not do as well as some of the other models in Nikon’s product range, but if you had to select one camera to do it all, the D500 will not disappoint.

I should qualify this by mentioning that I have not used the D5 underwater. I have no doubt that it performs amazingly well. For most though it is perhaps a prohibitively expensive option.

D500, Tokina AT-X 107 AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, Zen 170mm dome, 1/100@f8, ISO800

It is perhaps unfair to compare the two in terms of pure image quality, but if I was planning to solely shoot large wide angle reef scenes, the D810 combined with big powerful strobes like the Seacam Seaflash 150s or Ikelite DS161 would still be my tool of choice. Saying that, it needs to be paired with expensive lenses and large (and also expensive) ports to deliver its potential. It will be both simpler and significantly cheaper to get very good results with the D500. In absolute terms, the very high resolution cameras are unlikely to deliver their full potential due to water clarity, technique issues and lens/port optical compatibility.

D500, Tokina AT-X 107 AF DX 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, Zen 170mm dome, 1/200@f11, ISO800

For macro use, the D800/D810 allows for more cropping while retaining acceptable resolution. For shy or skittish subjects, this can be a boon. However, the D500 offers a 1.5 times crop factor, which gives macro lenses more reach by “definition”. The D500’s amazing AF performance will do a better job of keeping those subjects in focus too!

D500, Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR, 1/250@f18, ISO100

For those already shooting the D7200, the D500 offers significantly better AF, improved low light performance, a more rugged build quality and faster shooting. The offset is the expense of the camera and housing.

If you are still shooting a D300 or D300s, this is the time to upgrade. The performance enhancements will allow you to capture images that your existing set up will not. The ability to properly use ISO as an aid to exposure, the improved image quality, the AF performance and its speed all add up to being persuasive arguments for a new camera.

The Nikon D500 is available via your local specialist retailer (please check with Wetpixel advertisers whenever possible). It’s suggested selling price is US$1999.95.

References

(1) Hogan, Thom, D500 Guide pp 61.
(2) Nikon USA Support site, [D800 / D800E Technical Guides](D800 / D800E Technical Guides), “3. Improving Optical Performance pp 26.
(3) Hogan, Thom, D500 Guide pp 529.
(4) Ibid pp 530.
(5) Ibid pp 720.

FTTC Disclosure

The camera and lens were purchased from Reef Photo and Video by the reviewer. The NA-D500 housing was loaned by Nauticam free of charge for this review.

  1. Introduction and Acknowledgements.
  2. Image Quality and Dynamic Range.
  3. ISO Performance and Autofocus.
  4. XQD Cards, Build, Controls and Power and Speed.
  5. Alex Mustard on the D500 and Conclusion.