D500 – first impressions

After three days of intensive shooting with the D500 it is possible for me to draw the first conclusions. Regarding high ISO quality, focus performance, memory cards, battery lifetime and build quality a few topics are worth mentioning.

  • Image quality with high ISO values

The big revolution did not happen. The D500 is an evolution, for sure. However, the usable ISO values at the high end are not that higher than that of the D7200, despite the fact that the sensor packs 3,1 MP less pixel on the same area.

The high ISO performance of the D500 is about half a stop better than with the FX D700 of 2008. ISO 3200 looks a bit better on the D500 than it does on the D700. Die In comparison to its direct DX predecessor D300s, a huge gain of about 2 stops can be seen.

The often used comparison with FX is not entirely legit. The new DX sensor does not show that much noise at high ISO values compared to an 8 year old FX body, however uniform areas like blue sky show a little bit more noise (luminance grain) than with an FX sensor. At about ISO 400 the grain can be seen on the D400, which would start to appear on a D4 at ISO 1600.

DX is therefore no direct competitor to FX when it comes to noise performance, which should not come as a surprise. A D4/D4s wins easily against the D500 across the entire ISO range in the noise department.

My maximum setting for the Auto-ISO is 3200, above that the increasing noise does not satisfy my needs for image quality. Als maximalen Wert für die Auto-IOS Funktion habe ich derzeit ISO 3200 gesetzt. ISO 6400 and 12800 are usable with the help of post processing. Especially the increased color accuracy at higher ISO values helps.

  • Autofocus

The new focus module in combination with the 10 frames per second shooting is by far the biggest selling point for the D500. The increased number of cross-type sensors and the coverage of the frame in horizontal direction put the 500 in front of many other cameras.

In my opinion a camera has to be used extensively and for a longer period of time to draw valid conclusions. Therefore, I am not able to tell where the focus module stands in regard to speed, accuracy and tracking yet.

Compared to all other DX cameras, the D500 should be clearly in the lead, also in competition to the FX cameras up the D3 and D800. From personal experience I am comfortable to say that the D500 is at least on the D4 when it comes to focus speed and tracking performance. It is not possible for me to say if she is actually better, yet.

  • Memory Cards

Shortly after the first cameras shipped, the first problems regarding UHS-II SD cards surfaced. The main focus currently lies on Lexar cards of the latest 1000x and 2000x generation. The D500 suddenly displays a message, that the card is damaged and can not be used.

Not only Lexar UHS-II cards are affected. Also a Transcend 64 GB card with the write speed specification of 180 MB/s showed the same error. Shutting the camera off and on cures the problem most of the time.

In my opinion Nikon made an error during UHS-II implementation or interpreted tolerances too tightly. UHS-II cards of SanDisk or Toshiba seem to work fine currently. Nevertheless I would only buy fast UHS-I cards for the time being until a solution for this issue is identified.

This leaves the usage of a single XQD card as the only option to utilize the full speed of the camera.

  • Battery lifetime

A rather not welcome change is related to the power management. D300 and D300s needed the bigger EN-EL4 battery or 8 AA cells in the battery grip to achieve 8 fps. For the D500 the target of the Nikon engineers seems to have been the achievement of 10 fps with the help of a single EN-El15 battery.

The D500 is very sensitive when it comes to the reported voltage of the battery and obviously has a much earlier voltage cutoff than older cameras. Additionally, most of the 3rd party EN-El15 clones do not work.

The theory floats around in the Internet that there are two different variants of genuine Nikon EN-EL15 batteries marked with Li-Ion01 and Li-ion20. The latter are shipping with the D500. If Nikon should really have changed the batteries internally, this would be a rather unusual step.

Spec-wise changed batteries were always introduced as a revision of the old: EN-EL4/En-EL4a, EN-EL18/EN-EL18a. Nikon should have introduced – if the theory is true – a new revision like an EN-EL15a and make this the recommended battery for the D500. This will stay under close observation for the time being.

The battery grip MB-D17 behaves different. All my third party EN-El18 worked fine, even the DSTE ones with included battery cover which were purchased for the MB-D12 of the D800.

  • Build quality

On the positive side, Nikon does all they can to reduce the weight of its equipment. The combination of D500 + MB-D17 weighs 100g less than the D300 + MB-D10. The major part of approx. 75g is contributed by the D500 despite the fact that a swiveling monitor has been included.

On the negative side it can be said that camera and battery grip make a less solid impression than the D300 generation. The difference is bigger than with the migration from D700 to D800. Nevertheless, the D500 has a very high build quality and can be called solid.

The MB-D17 is a bit of a disappointment. A much higher cost than a MB-D12 or MB-D10 at the time of introduction and a weight saving of just 20g gives you a grip that feels less solid than the before mentioned models.

A more subtle change is affecting the grip rubber of D500 and MB-D17. The material is a bit harder than with D300, D700, D800 and the single digit bodies. Nikon started this with the D750 and time will tell if bent and loose rubbers are now a thing of the past.

  • Conclusion

All in all the D500 is a very good camera and can be recommended. All the main aspects of the three digit model series are being taken forward. In light of the D750 and reduced prices on the D810 the decision for the D500 might be a bit hard. If you are looking for speed, the D500 is the choice unless you spend much more for a single digit body.

Users of D4 and D4s – if AF coverage is not a topic- do not need to consider a switch. AF is sufficient on the former pro models and only the D5 is leaping forward in regard to high ISO performance.

D500 and issues with UHS-II SD cards (UPDATED)

[UPDATE 17th of July, 2016]: Nikon meanwhile published a firmware update that switches off UHS-II and reverts to UHS-I in case the camera determines a problem. UHS-II will be re-enabled after the standby timer shuts off the metering system. Nikon admits that errors can still occur, but very rarely. This is a workaround rather than a fix. Most surprising is, that Nikon argues that the error lies on the card side of the equation. This would imply that almost all vendors have problems with UHS-II cards. Very unlikely.

Currently the web discusses intensively the compatibility issues with Lexar UHS-II SD cards of the newest 1000x and 2000x speed ratings. During playback the D500 reports suddenly that the SD card is damaged and cannot be used.

Those issues do not seem to be isolated to the mentioned Lexar cards. Within the first test shots with a newly arrived D500, I received the error with a Transcend 64 GB UHS-II DS card with 180 MB/s write speed rating.

In my opinion Nikon seems to have a general issue with UHS-II cards in the D500. Despite the fact that no issues with Sandisk cards are reported so far, the problem might be more on the side of the camera than on the side of the SD cards.

To utilize the full speed of the camera, the only choice currently is to use a XQD card without backup. Purchase of additional UHS-II SD cards should be placed on hold for now, at least until the issue is acknowledged and sorted out.

Nikon has to react quickly with a firmware update or at least with the announcement of such.  The fact that several owners of the D500 discovered the issue quickly within the first pictures taken raises the question, what and how deep Nikon is actually testing its new products before launch.


[UPDATE 10th of May, 2016]: Taping off the additional UHS-II contacts on the Transcend card cures the problem. During more than 500 pictures the issue did not come up again.

D5 high ISO and dynamic range

The first D5 cameras show up in user’s hands right now and also some test pictures are being published.

Especially the high-ISO centric pictures of AndyE at NikonGear are being widely discussed. Derived from test pictures taken by him, also the first analysis of the provided dynamic range are becoming available.

Putting it all together, we are once again seeing an evolution instead of a revolution. If the already published values regarding the dynamic range turn out to be correct, the D5 will be an improvement for some, but a step back for others.

Up to ISO 1600 the D4 has an advantage in dynamic range, up to ISO 400 almost one stop. Above ISO 1600 the D5 gains an advantage. For most of the situations where dynamic range is important, the D4 should have an advantage.

Regarding the noise control with high ISO values, the D5 provides a visible improvement against the D4. The available test pictures provide a far more realistic impression than the early reviews led to believe. Some people claimed to see two to three stops improvement, which is clearly not the case.

Up to ISO 12.800 D4 and D5 are really close. Above that the D5 gains a visible advantage at ISO 25.600 and 51.200. In my opinion the gap is a little less than one stop in favor of the D5. ISO 102.400 is – from my point of view – not usable for any critical type of work, despite the fact that some people rave about the performance at this setting.

Summing it all up, the D5 has less than one stop more usable high ISO, which is in itself a remarkable achievement factoring in the increased resolution. Obviously we have reached a technical level that only allows for incremental improvements.

The last big jumps in high ISO performance took place from D2x to D3 and then again to D3s, but this was more than six years ago. Even the D4 was just an incremental improvement over the D3s. The D4s only offered smaller changes in signal processing and a renaming of HI-1 to ISO 25.600.

For my purposes the D4 maxes out at ISO 12.800. With the D5 the level will most likely move up one step to ISO 25.600.

Nikons product lineup after the D5/D500 launch

Sometimes it is fun to travel back in time. Apparently, Nikon did the same and re-visited the success formula of 2007. A FX flagship accompanied by a DX equivalent of the same resolution and almost the same speed in a smaller body.

Let’s hope that Nikon finally found back to the success formula of 2007-2011. So, what will be the product mix for the next few years, especially if the D500 sells in sufficient quantities? Let’s see first, what we have today:

  • D5 – top of the line build, speed, ISO in FX. Midterm refresh in 2018 possible.
  • D810 – pro build FX body, slower, landscape camera. The affordable pro-body for most professionals and serious hobbyists. Refresh in 2017 possible.
  • D500 – pro build, speed and best ISO for DX. Pro-style body for the masses. Future refresh cycle unclear. I could imagine a longer cycle before any refresh or replacement happens.
  • D750 – Highend consumer body FX. Compromise in speed, ISO, AF. Direct successor unclear (see below).
  • D610 – midrange consumer body FX for most price sensitive hobbyists. Replacement in 2016 already rumored.
  • D7200 and future replacements – serious amateur standard DX. Entry class for cameras with built in AF motor and metering for manual lenses. Refresh in 2017 likely.
  • D5500 and below – camera for hobby travelers interested in DSLR, but not necessarily amateur photographers. Eye-catching features to get attention on the store shelf like swiveling LCDs or connection options.

That’s a pretty crowded product stack. But still, something is missing. Depending on whom to ask, different cameras might be seen as missing:

  • A lower FX resolution alternative to the D810 in a pro body.
  • A high resolution D5x alternative.

I do not see a D5x coming. It has to be even more expensive than the D5. The price would be too much of a stretch, as it was before with the D3x.

The first could happen. But not as additional product. As I have written before, the theory that D700 took away sales from the D3 is nonsense. The original D3 still has the most highest serial numbers known of any pro-style single digit body.

But where should the speed FX in the small pro body sit within this product family? Looking closely at the different models, the D750 seems a bit out of place. It is not a pro body (round viewfinder, 10 pin terminal), but is stretching towards the big cameras based on feature set.

Changing the body style of the D750 to a pro body does not work at this price point, as it would kill the D500 immediately. Still, a lower resolution alternative for the possible D810 successor would sell well.

How about this:

  • D5 – the same as today – 7000 €
  • D810 successor – still the MP king, as today in a pro body FX – 3300 €
  • D750 successor – Speed, pro body FX – 2800 €
  • D500 – the same as today. Pro body DX – 2300 €
  • D610 successor – consumer body FX – 1600 €
  • D7200 successor – consumer body DX. 1100 €
  • D5500 and below – mass market up to 700 €

The D750 would be upgraded to a pro body, together with a fitting price increase. The schematics of numbering would make more sense than today and everybody would be able to find the camera fitting to the needs. Except the D5x.

Let’s see what happens in Nikon’s roadmap.

Production figures of pro-body D-series DSLRs

Production volume of the single digit D-series
UPDATED 03.2017 with new highest serial number for D1h, D2hs

Many speculations and theories float around in the internet about sales volumes of the different D-series models. Derived from that theories about portfolio decisions on Nikon’s part become common wisdom. Unfortunately, some of those theories are way off base.

The most popular theory is, that the success of the D700 impacted D3 sales so much, that we now have a slow, high resolution body in the position of the D700 (D800/D810) instead of a mini-D4. In my opinion this theory is complete nonsense and can be dis-proofed by looking at the sales numbers.

Since Nikon does not publish sales of individual models, those numbers can only be derived from the serial numbers of camera bodies. Fortunately, this is a rather simple task for the single digit D-series. Nikon does not use regional serial numbers like on the lower positioned cameras. If a serial starts with 2000001, the numbering scheme is the same for the entire production run. It is safe to assume that the numbering is sequentially, as it is with the lenses.

Looking at the highest serial numbers, that I could find for each camera body, the situation looks quite interesting (sources are internet auctions, sales offers and own purchases):

D1: 5038*** > 38.000

D1h: 5222*** > 22.000

D1x: 5165*** > 65.000

D2h: 2036*** > 36.000

D2hs: 30082** > 8.200

D2x: 5073*** > 73.000

D2xs: 6024*** > 24.000

D3: 2095*** > 95.000

D3s: 2061*** > 61.000

D3x: 5036*** > 36.000

D4: 2069*** > 69.000

D4s: 2039*** > 39.000

Looking at the figures, the D1 generation begins at 115.000 bodies. The D2 styled body achieved at least 143.000 units, D2hs not included as I could not find much data and the few serials are rather low. The D3/s/x sold an astonishing 192.000 units and the D4/s will reach a bit more than 110.000.

Calculating it on a sales per year basis, D1 series sold a bit more than 25.000 bodies yearly, the D2 series comes to approx. 30.000-40.000 units a year, the D3 series on almost 50.000 units and the D4 drops back to approx. 30.000 units.

Given the fact that the D3 sold much better than D2 or D4, it is simply impossible to argue about D700 taking away D3 sales. Also, comparing D2 series to D4 series it is safe to assume, that we are today back on a regular sales level for such expensive cameras – with a slight downward trend.

During the next few years the DSLR market will move into a replacement market. People are more and more satisfied with what they have and fewer upgrades will happen. Nikon will compensate this with higher prices while forecasting lower sales volumes.

The first signs of it can already be seen with the price hikes happening from D800E to D810, D4 to D4s. Also it is very interesting to see what corners are cut to lower production costs. Dropping some dedicated controls in the D4 is a first indicator.

UPDATE 01.2016: The D5 is announced and the price hiking continues: 7.000 € compared to 6500 € introductory price for the D4s. At least this will hold the D4/s used prices stable for a while.

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