A number of people have commented on the photos from my recent Arctic cruise with Adventure Canada. That’s no surprise: most of those photos were taken with the Nikon D500, probably the most capable camera I’ve ever travelled with.
When I asked Nikon Canada, my sponsor on the trip, for the loan of a camera to capture the sights of the Arctic, I was expecting something like the D5500, the compact SLR camera I took to Europe in 2015. But they had other plans, and I found myself flying North with one of the most powerful cameras in Nikon’s arsenal. A big place like the Arctic calls for a serious camera.
Looking at the camera
The Nikon D500 is sometimes called the “little brother” of the D5, Nikon’s flagship, professional-level SLR, which made a splash when it was introduced this year. That doesn’t mean the D500 is small: it’s a good-sized camera, as you’d expect, but not so big as to be clumsy. In fact, it felt very comfortable in my hand, and it’s actually pretty light for its size.
The resemblance is in the fact that the D500 packs several of the high-powered features that make the D5 such a heavy hitter: a 21-megapixel CMOS sensor, a 153-point autofocus system, and the same EXPEED 5 processor, to turn all those pixels into great-looking photos. As well, it can fire off 10 frames per second, even in high-quality RAW mode, and has a big memory buffer so you can take long bursts of shots. It also has two card slots, one for an SD card and on for an XQD card; you can use one card for overflow, backup or as a separate card for RAW files.
All that makes it a great camera for capturing action, and fittingly, the D500 has an APS-C-sized sensor, smaller than the full-frame sensor on the D5. That effectively makes every lens 50 percent longer – perfect for people like me who love shooting wildlife.
As well, it comes with a big, sharp, 3.2-inch rear monitor that swings out and tilts, and a touch-screen function so you can focus and shoot with the tap of a finger. There’s an ultra-bright viewfinder, but since this is a camera aimed at serious photographers, no pop-up flash.Of course, there are full manual controls, as well as Nikon’s patented control system: hold down the selected button and rotate one of the two command dials until you get the setting you want. There are lots of dedicated buttons for quickly changing things like exposure and ISO, as well as a few you don’t often see — like focus mode, depth-of-field preview and bracketing buttons, all on the front of the camera. And there’s a unique “sub-selector” button (that’s it near the AF-ON button above), for things like choosing focus points and locking your focus.
As you’d expect, the camera is endlessly customizable. There are six picture modes to give you the exact look you want, and you can adjust to them to your own tastes, or invent your own picture style. (You can apply the picture modes to movies, as well, and trim them in-camera.) Most of the camera’s functions are adjustable, including things like noise reduction and active D-lighting, which helps compensate for contrasty conditions.
Shooting with the Nikon D500
Even with the D500’s host of features and settings, I found it an easy camera to shoot with. The camera performed quickly and smoothly – no surprises there. The shutter was quiet and lightning fast. And the focus was so smooth and seamless that in some situations I had a hard time telling whether it was focusing at all. In most cases, the D500 found the focus quickly and accurately, however.
Most of the commonly used controls were right under my thumb and index finger; I especially liked having the ISO and exposure compensation buttons positioned right beside the shutter. As well, the big, bright monitor made it easy to review my shots, and a quick control screen allowed me to review my settings on the fly. When the lighting got tricky, pushing the top of the four-way controller on the back brought up detailed information on each shot to check my exposure and colour balance.
“Most of the commonly used controls were right under my thumb and index finger”
The D500’s more sophisticated tools came in handy, as well. For difficult situations — like shooting Arctic birds on the wing from a moving ship deck — there were special focus modes to choose from. Those include a “group” mode which creates a cluster of focus points; if the subject crosses any of them, the focus snaps in. There’s also a 3D mode which tracks your subject once you capture it, though I found it a bit tricky to get a focus in these difficult conditions.
My first few tries with the D500 and Nikon’s excellent 200-500 ED VR zoom lens were only semi-successful. But once I got familiar with the camera and lens, I started capturing some lovely, sharp shots, like this one of a thick-billed murre in flight. (Note: the sample shots below have not been edited except for cropping. Click on them to see them full-size.) The powerful 10-frames-per-second burst mode came in very handy, too.
I did shoot in live view a few times, using the monitor instead of the viewfinder, and it worked well – though as with all SLRs, it involves focusing and then waiting for a double-click to take your shot. Generally, I prefer to use the viewfinder, but this mode is useful when the lighting is tricky and you want to see exactly what your picture is going to look like. The articulating monitor came in handy for shooting over crowds, or getting a low angle without getting down on your knees.
The touch screen function worked well, allowing me to focus quickly and then fire the camera with the tap of a finger. And I did take some video, though generally I leave that job to my pocket camera. The D500 has a dedicated video button, and allows you to set the focus mode to suit your subject. Here’s a short sample of the camera’s video quality, shot off the coast of Baffin Island.
Looking at the pictures
I shot hundreds – maybe thousands – of photos with the Nikon D500 during my Arctic cruise, in all types of situations. I shot indoors, outdoors, in bright sunlight and murky fog, and a few times at sunset as midnight approached. And it gave me sharp, good-looking photos in every situation. The camera is known for producing good-looking skin tones, as in this photo of an Inuit teacher in Cape Dorset.
I had the luxury of three high-quality Nikkor lenses, and they turned out some brilliant-looking shots when the sun did shine. Here’s one:
The nature photography was the toughest test, however, and the D500 did turn out some top-quality shots, like this photo of a snow bunting in Greenland.
Then there’s low-light photography, and here the D500 gave me a surprise. On two occasions I set an ISO level manually in an indoor setting and later found I’d shot at a sky-high value I’d never dreamed of. The reason: the camera’s auto ISO sensitivity control, which boosts the ISO if it can’t get a good exposure at the levels you’ve set. I finally turned it off, but it did turn out some very clean-looking shots at amazingly high settings, like this one of the Greenland mummies at 16,000 ISO. (Other shots at ultra-high ISOs did show considerable noise.)
The Nikon D500 is a camera for those who are serious about their photography, and are willing to pay for top quality. And it does deliver that quality, with a powerful imaging engine and a host of pro-quality features that make it a good choice for almost any kind of shooting. In fact, the camera has features I haven’t even mentioned, including things like double exposure and wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity.
With all that power, however, it’s not a big, heavy camera that will give you a sore shoulder (though lugging a big lens does add considerable weight). And despite its sophisticated features, it’s fairly easy to use if you’re an experienced SLR shooter. The important controls are at your fingertips, so you can fire away without stopping to hunt for things. And with the D500’s big buffer, you can keep shooting and shooting.
That said, this is a camera that takes some study if you want to get the most from it. As noted, I was surprised by the auto ISO boost, and the focus function takes a little getting used to. In fact, I found the focus a bit too smooth, since I’m used to cameras that “snap in” when they find the mark. I also found locking the focus using the sub-selector a bit tricky.
The last word: the Nikon D500 is a formidable camera that delivers the top photo quality and sophisticated features you’d expect from a camera in its price range. It’s a camera you could shoot great pictures with for a long, long time.