D500 - a backward step, or sensible decision?

Prior to purchasing the D850 at the end of last year I’d been using two identically set up D810’s. Whilst this arrangement had certain benefits it wasn’t what I would have chosen. I would have preferred two complimentary bodies, one for speed and one for resolution, but the decision was effectively taken out of my hands when my original and only D810 at the time was significantly damaged following a fall and had to be sent to Fixation. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be without it, so decided to trade my old D700 and a couple of unused lenses for a new one. The damaged camera was successfully repaired and came back a few weeks later as good as new, so effectively I now had a spare second body rather than an alternative camera. When I upgraded to the D850 I knew that I was going to have to make a future decision regarding the other body. If the D850 lived up to the hype of being a ‘suits all situations’ camera offering both high speed and high resolution shooting capabilities then a second D850 was a distinct possibility. Alternatively I would use the D850 as my primary camera, whilst still having the D810 I’d retained as a second body when needed, such as when on safari. I discussed these options in my previous post, concluding that neither was going to work and that if I wanted a second supplementary body, I would have to look at either the D750 upgrade or D6 (when available), or the current D5 or D500. In this follow up post I’ll run through those options and my thought process in settling on the D500.

However, before I launch into the article I want to be clear about a couple of points. Firstly, I’m looking for two complimentary bodies that I’ll be happy with over the coming years as I have to be mindful that I cannot keep spending money on new equipment as I used to prior to retirement. I’ve finally got to a point where I cannot see why I would want to change any of my lenses, and I want to feel the same about my cameras. Secondly, although I’m saying that I ‘want' a second supplementary body, it’s really a case that I ‘need' one for many of the trips we do. Sensibly everyone who takes their hobby seriously should have a spare body, but if you do different types of photography, or have situations when two camera and lens combinations can be used together, the second body needs to be suitable for the job rather than just being an old camera that’s been relegated to the task. Like all wildlife photographers I need an action camera with good low-light performance. The D850 blends relatively fast speed with high resolution, but falls down when shutter speed drops off or ISO is increased. I’m also very keen to have two similar bodies in terms of button placement and functions. The current professional D5, D850 and D500 bodies are designed accordingly, whereas the D750 is not and I doubt very much whether it’s future replacement will be any different, so that’s why my current options are the D5 or D500. I still hope for a D900 - a D850 size body with around 25Mp and consequently better 'D5 level' low-light performance, and say 10fps. That would be perfect and would sit well alongside the high-resolution 46Mp D850. If it was available today I would have it and wouldn’t be writing this article, but it isn’t so I’ll crack on.

I’ll start with the D5 and the admission that for quite some while I’ve had a lust for a top-of-the-range, full size, professional body - first it was the D3s, then the D4s (which I actually had for a very short time) and now the D5. It was never the case of simply wanting the best and most expensive model, but more to do with what that model offered in terms of AF and ISO (low-light) performance, coupled with frame rate and build quality. As we know, some of those features have been pushed down the line and are now available in both the D850 and D500, so the benefits of owning a D5 as well as a D850 for example are, in my opinion, less than they were when matching the D5 with the D810, or D4s and D800. But the important fact that you’ll never get away from is that Nikon will always ensure that their flagship professional model will, in general terms, perform better than any other camera they offer. They have to, simply because of the price (I’ll come onto that in a moment) so it’s interesting that if you compare the specs of the D5 v the D850 it’s the D850 that will come out top in most cases. But the D850 is what I would call a more defined camera than the D5 because, notwithstanding its other features, it has an increased dynamic range and higher resolution, consequently it will fall down somewhere and, in the main, that’s with high ISO low-light performance where the D5 is noticeably better. There are pros and cons with both cameras, so you have to evaluate what each offers in a real world situation.

So why have I not just bitten the bullet with the D5? There are two reasons. The first is that I’ve always preferred Nikon's smaller prosumer size bodies and, as I noted in my previous article, the D850 is without doubt the most comfortable and responsive camera that I’ve ever used. For me, the size and weight of the D850 is perfect. I rarely shoot in portrait format so have never considered purchasing a separate grip and have never thought that I’m missing out by not having one integrated into the body. The increased size of the D5, and indeed weight with the larger battery, would just be a hindrance. I know that many photographers like the feel of the larger body and that it fits more comfortably in the hand, but for me that’s not the case. I could get used to it, but it’s always been something at the back of mind, not only because of its physical weight in operation but also in respect of travelling when I’m already struggling with camera bag capacity and airline restrictions.

D5 (FX) - a bit of a brute and almost twice the weight of the D500
D5 (FX) - a bit of a brute and almost twice the weight of the D500

The second reason is that I’ve never been comfortable with the price differential between the top models in the range. Despite the cost of the D850 being considerably more than the D810, thereby making the difference between it and the D5 proportionally less than it’s been with previous generations, the actual cost is hard to swallow. If I compare the D5 (£5389) today from Wex with the D850 (£3499) I see that it’s 54% more expensive - that’s massive, even if it is a big improvement from when the D5 was (and still is) more than twice the cost of the D810.

But, and there’s always a but, the D5 has advantages, not least being its ISO (low light) performance. Consequently it remains a possible buy for the future. In fact, if it hadn’t already been due for an update I would have been giving it serious consideration now because, forgetting size and cost, there’s no doubt in my mind that a D5 and D850 would make a great combination. However, I wouldn’t consider purchasing one now after pondering over it for so long only to find in a few months' time that the next generation is being announced. Over the past few years Nikon has upgraded its professional body on roughly a two-year cycle in time for the Olympics. Given that the D5 was launched in January 2016, many thought (almost assumed) that a D5s version would have been announced in time for this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. Obviously that didn’t happen so it’s pretty likely that this generation won’t have an interim upgrade and that we’ll have to wait for the D6. Personally I think there are two important reasons why this has happened. Firstly, what could Nikon have added to justify a new version? Anything significant will surely be held back for the D6, so any attempt to bring out a D5s to replicate what they did with the D3s and D4s would have offered little and would only have resulted in bad press. The other reason is that the next Summer Olympics is in Japan in July 2020. That’s big for Nikon, particularly bearing in mind that whilst their prosumer bodies (D850 and D500) are made in Thailand the professional (D5) cameras are manufactured in Japan. So, although I still can’t see what else they could add other than an improvement in megapixels, I’ll just sit it out for now and wait and see what happens late 2019 / early 2020.

In the interim though I still needed to satisfy my requirement for another body to work alongside the D850 if I wasn’t going to use my remaining D810. Well, perhaps not surprisingly, I decided to give the D500 a try. My reasoning is simple. Firstly, with a good part-exchange price from Wex for my D810, the amount I actually had to pay for the D500 wasn’t a great deal even if I only end up keeping it for 18 months or so (assuming the D6 becomes a sensible option). Secondly, the layout and feature set is almost identical to the D850, which make switching between the two very easy. And, thirdly, it will be an alternative camera as opposed to a spare body as the D810 would have ended up. There should be situations where the D500 may be more suitable than the D850 and, therefore, there’s a good chance that it could be used as my primary camera on occasions, whereas the D810 would only have been used if I needed a second camera and lens combination readily to hand.

D850 (FX) - slightly larger and a little heavier than the D500
D850 (FX) - slightly larger and a little heavier than the D500
D500 (DX) - similar layout to its full-frame counterpart
D500 (DX) - similar layout to its full-frame counterpart

      Sizes and weights :   D5 (FX) 160x159x92mm [1405g],   D850 (FX) 146x124x79 [1005g]  and  D500 (DX) 147x115x81mm [760g]

Whilst I believe that the previously noted reasons are sound, I still have a dilemma. In fact I have two dilemmas. The first is the thought of taking what I regard as a backward step to a DX body, because when I upgraded my D300 to a D700 a few years back I was certain that it would be full frame FX format for ever more. But more importantly, my other dilemma is that, despite the final comment in the previous paragraph, I’m not quite sure when I’d actually use it in favour of the D850? That statement might sound strange, and it would be if I was talking about using the D500 in conjunction with a D5 or D750, but when comparing it with the D850 the main benefit of the 1.5 crop factor of the DX sensor is, to all intent and purposes, eliminated as the resultant images, if compared at the same (subject) size, would be virtually the same.

The important point to remember here is that you’re trying to make the subject larger in the frame and that would be the case in respect of comparing an un-cropped image from both an FX and DX camera, but with the large file size (8256 x 5504) produced by the D850 you have to remember that if you used it in DX mode, or indeed cropped it to that equivalent size during post processing, it would produce a file (5408 x 3600) that is very similar to that produced by the D500 (5568 x 3712). That’s a difference of about 6%, which is nothing. I’m primarily thinking here about bird photography where, the bulk of the time, distance is your enemy and that - almost regardless of your camera and lens choice - you have to crop during processing. Obviously the comparison of pixels to subject is the same with animals, but when on safari I can see some merit in having the D500 set up differently to the D850 in terms of AF area where, if an action situation arose, you could benefit from the extra 3fps.

At the moment though I really can’t think of any specific situation where it would make sense to choose to use the D500 instead of the D850. The only two things that could are ISO performance and camera sensitivity in terms of handholding. From everything I’ve read, ISO (low light) performance between the two cameras is similar, but with most reviews giving the D850 FX sensor the edge as you'd expect, so I can’t see that I’m going to experience anything different. The other point though is interesting, and one that I haven’t seen anybody else talking about in any detail, and that's in respect of handling. The D850 is a Diva with a sensitive body that needs to be respected and handled with care, whereas the D500 is regarded as a workhorse camera that has a more sensible resolution for general day-to-day photography. Think here 45.4Mp v 20.7Mp, which is a massive difference. But, and I’m conscious that in this long post there have been a few buts, the D850 contains a full size FX sensor whereas the D500 is a DX camera fitted with a smaller crop sensor and, consequently, if you do the maths as noted above, the actual pixel density between the two is much the same. So what I don’t understand is why the D850 should be regarded as a camera that needs quality glass and faster shutter speeds, particularly if handholding when similar comments aren’t being made about the D500. I’ll be giving that matter further thought over the coming months.

I'm sure that I'll be writing further articles about both the D850 and the D500, but for now I'm still pondering the original question of whether the D500 is a backward step, or sensible decision?

Tony - ‘tickspics’
Saturday, 23rd June 2018

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