A couple of weeks ago a Wetpixel reader emailed me directly and asked for my experience of moving from a Nikon D800 to the D500 specifically in a Subal housing.
The reader thought the answer would be of wider interest to WP readers - so here it is. As I say, this is based on my own personal experience. I'm no pixel peeper or techno ninja - I just really like taking pictures underwater - so some might argue with techie detail or my choice of gear. Fair enough!
"I’ve always been a keen macro shooter. Since about 2008, I've moved from a Nikon D300/Subal to the Nikon D800/Subal - and now the D500/Subal.
I’ve also moved from electrically initiated strobes fired from the D300/Subal to fibre optic in the D800/Subal. I found the switch to fibre a really good experience. Fibre is so much more flexible and rugged and is easier for using TTL - which I like especially for macro.
I make the point on strobes connections as I think it’s an important part of the D800/D500 consideration.
Both the D500 and the D800 are superb! I found with the D300/D500 and a DX sensor that using the Nikkors 60mm and 105mm worked well for macro. But with the D800 you only need the 105mm. With the FX sensor on the D800 the 60mm is too short. So with the D800 I only traveled with one macro lens and one port, the Nikkor 105mm and the Subal FP-105VR. I have got so used to the 105mm that, so far, with the D500 I’m only using the 105mm and have not gone back to using a 60mm.
The D800 gives you LOADs of pixels which makes cropping easy and flexible - ideal for macro; and you can also switch to a DX image (with the Subal you can do this easily underwater) on the D800 which, then, effectively gives you a roughly 160mm macro lens - with no real loss of quality. So highly flexible.
Handling of the D500 or D800 is, in my view, broadly the same. The D800 Subal housing is slightly bigger (it’s slightly taller - for good reason which I’ll explain) but not hugely so. The controls between the two Subal housings are pretty much the same - the usual Subal high-build quality and superb “feel”.
STROBES AND TTL
Here’s the big difference: the D800 can fire strobes using fibre or electrical cables (although mine is only set up for fibre) initiated, in the case of fibre, by the camera’s pop-up built-in flash (hence the slightly larger housing). Electric connections use, of course, a hot shoe link to electrical bulkheads.
However the D500 cannot initiate firing strobes on its own via fibre optics. There is no built-in camera flash on the D500. You therefore have to buy a strobe initiator - whether the Subal V3 system or a Turtle TTL or something like that. The electronics fits inside the housing and connects to the camera hot shoe and then to LEDs fitted inside the housing attached to the fibre optic bulkheads.
When the camera fires, the strobe initiator flashes an LED which then activates the strobes. These initiators, in most cases, will also give you TTL - which comes automatically with the D800’s in-built flash. I bought the V3 system from Subal which is pricey but seems good - although I have had some initial problems with the LEDs failing - which Subal have replaced.
The other thing I really liked about the D800 was WA shooting. I find the images amazing: sharp, beautiful colours - especially the blues. I have sold a lot of images from this especially from trips to the Red Sea. I’ve not yet had chance to test out the D500 in the same way but I really hope I don’t lose that D800 WA capability!
So, on balance, nothing really to chose from between the D500 and D800 by my experience so far in terms of image quality or handling.
The only thing I would flag up is the additional cost of the D500 strobe initiator - which, as I have hopefully explained, you don’t have with the D500 and which you do get with the D800.
I’ve had my D500 system about 3 months and have done one trip with it and shot about 3000 images. I’m really pleased with it. Was it really worth switching from the D800 with all the costs involved? Honestly, I’m not sure. The D800/Subal is superb. If I had realised fully the implications of the D500 not having a built-in flash to initiate the strobes via fibre optics (which I love!) - and the costs involved of doing this - I’m not entirely sure I would have made the switch. "