Nikon D500

It was a really tough decision to part with my stalwart D300s a few years ago to fund a new D600. I knew I was losing a quality camera and while I was gaining some new technologies and coveted full frame coverage of the FX D600, I knew I was losing the solid build, pro layout and a raft of other features I had come to know and appreciate on the D300s.
Eventually I repaired the loss of the DX reach by acquiring a D7100 but that was short-lived. The shallow buffer was limiting and I hastily upgraded to a D7200 at the beginning of 2016. At the same time I said good bye to the D600 and traded it in for a D750. With a D750 and D7200 I thought I was ready for anything and indeed the results from both these cameras has been excellent.

But it was only a matter of weeks after acquiring both these cameras that the D500 was announced. I was a bit miffed as I hadn’t come out of the various earlier trade-ins unscathed! The consolation was that the D500 really seemed to come out of the blue. Even the veteran Nikon pundits didn’t see it coming. Everyone expected the D5 but Nikon did a stellar job of keeping the D500 under wraps and no doubt that helped steady the Christmas 2015 sales of D7200s just like mine!

I shot the D750/ 7200 combo all year doing a number of formal portrait shoots and multiple adventures including a pair of trips in the Great Bear Rainforest with Maple Leaf Adventures. The results were fantastic and I have been extremely pleased with both cameras. The addition of the Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 super telephoto lens eclipsed my 80-400mm AF-S lens as well. Still, the more I read and watched about the D500 the more I figured it had to be! At the end of September I ordered one and the next day scheduled a trip up to Bute Inlet to photograph Grizzly Bears with Campbell River Whale Watching and Homalco Wildlife Tours.

Mother Grizzly Bear and cubs, Orford Bay, BC

Mother Grizzly Bear and cubs, Orford Bay, BC

This shot of the mother grizzly bear and three cubs was taken with the Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 lens with a 14lll Teleconvertor giving an effective focal length of 1050mm! Watching this scene over the course of a bout an hour I was using the ‘joystick’ sub-selector in overdrive as the four bears constantly moved, changing which was the main subject minute by minute. I found using the sub-selector intuitive and straightforward. I left the default option for pressing the middle to return the focus point to the centre. I tried using the multi-selector but found once I was using the sub-selector it was cumbersome to move the thumb down to the other control.

As our group moved up the valley we came into closer quarters with the bears and the D500 really began to shine. With more light and closer subjects the improved accuracy of the auto-focus and the image sharpness became apparent.

Grizzly Bear, Orford River, But Inlet, BC

Grizzly Bear, Orford River, But Inlet, BC

This shot was taken at 1/640 sec at f8 ISO-500 also with the 200-500mm lens.

Those first results were outstanding and I was immediately vindicated in my own mind for splurging. I’ve considered selling the D7200 but it’s still an awesome camera, was great value and has still certain advantages over the D500 so I’m not quite done with it yet.

The next opportunity to really put the D500 through its paces started just a few days later on a 2 week trip in the Great Bear Rainforest with Maple Leaf Adventures.

Maple Leaf Adventures offer adventure tours on two incredible, 100+ year old wooden vessels S.V. Maple Leaf and M.V. Swell. They accommodate 8 and 12 passengers respectively and ply the British Columbia coast into southeast Alaska. Joining a few trips a year as Naturalist and Photographer I help interpret the wildlife, eco-systems, First Nations history and, occasionally, local politics. For each trip, along with other crew photographers, we compile a slideshow of stills and video for the guests to return home with as a keepsake of their adventure.

October in the Great Bear Rainforest presents a variety of challenges and opportunities for photography. The weather is cooling down as winter approaches. Storms rolling in from the Pacific Ocean can bring epic rainfalls and of course the wildlife is predictably unpredictable! Each day brings a new adventure for both passengers and crew with many stories that could be told of breaching humpback whales, the panicked flight of a deer fleeing a wolf pack, or the heart-warming scene of a mother grizzly bear nursing her young cubs.

A Spirit Bear (Kermode Bear) glides along a river's edge in search of salmon

A Spirit Bear (Kermode Bear) glides along a river’s edge in search of salmon

If I were to pick three factors that are the greatest challenge for a photographer in the Great Bear Rainforest in the fall it would have to be:
A) low light – with the daylight fading with the coming winter, frequent thick, low cloud and the high, dark mountainsides looming above, good light is precious and low light the norm.
B) focus – a combination of the low light, variable contrast, movement of boats large and small and sometimes fast-moving wildlife can make focus acquisition difficult.
C) weather – especially rain. Over the years I’ve seen several cameras succumb to the damp despite good efforts to keep them covered. Most have been Canons, but unless completely waterproof any camera is vulnerable.

I’ve shot about a dozen Nikon DSLRs since my first D100 in 2003. My budget range usually hovers in the mid-range so springing for the D500 I was definitely stepping up and hoping to be impressed. Firstly, although it’s been a while since I had a body with Nikon’s ‘pro-layout’ (D300s) I found moving from the controls of the D750/D7200 fairly straightforward. Like many Nikon shooters I’m perplexed why the more expensive cameras don’t have a better set of User banks but having shot with the D100, 200 and 300s for so many years with their poorly implemented user settings I pretty much never use them anyway.

Relative to other bodies I’ve used there are some significant changes & additions to the camera controls. The dedicated ISO button is one of the first to notice. I never use the ISO button to change the ISO while looking through the viewfinder either, preferring to use the ‘Easy ISO’ option on the D600, 750 & 7200 to change ISO using the rear command dial. I was disappointed to see that with the move of the ISO button on the D500 to just above the shutter button the menu option for Easy ISO is gone! I would have preferred to have had a Metering mode button there instead, to give quicker (read one-handed) access to the Highlight-Weighted Spot Meter, a boon option for photographing Bald Eagles. Regardless of the button assignment keeping the Easy ISO option would have been a no-brainer.

AUTO FOCUS Another obvious control addition is the new sub-selector joystick that adds a second method for moving the selected autofocus point around the frame. With the expanded coverage of the new Advanced Multi-CAM 20K autofocus system the improved interface is welcome and works very well although the surface of the button is a little harder than I anticipated. The multi-selector still retains control over the autofocus points too but once you use the sub-selector there’s no need for the old-style control which leaves you wondering why it’s even there? Especially with the advent of a touch screen rear-LCD. I think we’re seeing an incremental change in user-interface here and I wouldn’t be surprised if the D850(?) or D500s(?) lose the multi-selector and sport expanded functionality of the touch-screen. I don’t know enough about programming to speculate with any accuracy, if it’s even possible, but it would be great to see a firmware upgrade add menu control to the touch screen.

Pileated Woodpecker D500 Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 1/60 sec. ISO 1600

Pileated Woodpecker D500 Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 1/60 sec. ISO 1600

There are several new autofocus menu options that add small but welcome improvements to the system. Restricting the AF options is useful and helps speed things up. I know I will never use Auto-Area, 3D or 153 point Dynamic so being able to turn them off entirely is great and saves time. Perhaps the best single addition though is the ability to customize the F1 button to Group AF mode. I love this feature! To be able to call up Group mode on, close to, a frame by frame basis is great, especially for birds in flight and I suspect for sports too. I’ve been surprised at how quickly I was able to become proficient with my ring finger in activating the button on the fly. If that could be added in a firmware update to the D750 I’d be very happy indeed. I lost count of the number of times I was following an eagle as it flew along with a complex forest background and quickly called up the Group Focus points as it lifted up in front of a solid-grey sky. Finally after 3 decades of marketing hyperbole over-inflating autofocus the technology is starting to actually do what the manufacturers have claimed all along.

Overall I found the D500 autofocus to be unquestionably a step ahead. On my two previous trips to the Great Bear Rainforest I had my 200-500mm f5.6 tele on my D7200. While it performed well there were a few occasions, notably scenes of low contrast like low-hanging fog where it racked the lens in and out hunting for focus. I don’t think in 2 weeks and 8,000 frames that the D500 did that even once. It snaps into focus quickly and accurately.

ISO PERFORMACE Before pulling the trigger on the D500 I had read plenty of online reviews and with the camera in the market a good 6 months there was a wealth of information available. A consistent refrain seemed to be that the ISO performance is very good, slightly improved but doesn’t make a significant leap beyond the current crop of similarly priced FX cameras are capable of (specifically the D750). So I wasn’t expecting any miracles. Nevertheless it’s safe to say that the ISO performance of the D500 is fabulous and certainly eclipses its long-surpassed predecessor the D300/s.

Bald Eagle, Clatse Bay, BC

Bald Eagle, Clatse Bay, BC

Typically I like to stay at ISO 1600 or below. I have a low tolerance for noise. But as soon as significant subject motion is present your options in low light start to dwindle and I found myself pushing the D500 to ISO 3200, then 5000 and up to ISO 6400. The initial results certainly showed noise, but very, very little colour noise, almost all luminance, which cleaned up very nicely in Lightroom. On balance to be able to capture eagles flying in what can only be described as gloomy light and not only freeze them at 1/800 of a second but record beautifully saturated colours is really a technological marvel.

WEATHER SEALING It survived! What can be said about a camera’s weather sealing? It’s a hard thing to test unless you have deep pockets and a sadistic penchant for destroying expensive equipment. But let’s start at the obvious – no pop-up flash. Most pundits seem to agree that the pop-up flash as been nixed in favour of a more durable, weather-proof body. Fine – I’m down with that. I rarely use a flash and it’s easy enough for me to pop on a small SB400 that’s usually in my bag or case. I’ll take the durability over a feature I don’t use any day.

One thing I have noticed irrespective of the D500 itself is that some of the rubber gaskets on my lenses have become detached, that is part of the rubber ring is out of place. I’ve carefully pushed them back in with a paper clip and it seems to work for a while. I hadn’t noticed this before I started some routine inspections – have a look, you may be surprised.

A WORD OF CAUTION Beware of what you wish for… 10 frames a second is fast!!! You will end up with more images , more data to store and more culling & editing. In three trips this fall; two with the D750 & D7200 combo I finished with 5,600 and 5,800 images, pretty close. On the third trip with the D500 I ended up with 7,800 images, about a 35% jump! And that was after some rigorous culling. In the future I think I’m going to have to be more disciplined with my use of Continuous High shooting and perhaps set a fairly low CL rate as a bit of a stop valve.