The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas isn't much of a camera show. And it's certainly not normally the place Nikon would choose to debut its premiere DSLR, but then again, the new Nikon D5 (MSRP $6,499.95) is hardly a normal professional DSLR.
While all the major players in the camera market are here at CES, most didn't even bother holding press conferences—if they announced anything at all. Nikon, on the other hand, rolled out the red carpet for its latest pro camera in an event at the swank Paris Hotel, while also debuting the exciting new Nikon D500 and unique KeyMission 360 action cam.
But as eye-catching as the D500 and KM 360 are, the crown jewel is undoubtedly the D5—the company's first truly pro-grade DSLR since the D4S was announced back in February 2014. And while the new D5 doesn't look all that different on the outside, Nikon has spent the intervening two years pushing the envelope of DSLR design, adding things like 8-bit 4K video, a touchscreen, a new 153-point autofocus system, and a brand-new Expeed 5 processor.
It's a sweeping set of changes that veer between the radical and the mundane, but all of them combine to create one of the most full-featured professional DSLRs I've ever handled.
Design & Usability
Nikon proves the DSLR still has some life left in it.
Like every Nikon DSLR released over the past couple decades, when you pick up the Nikon D5 it feels instantly familiar. Especially if you've shot extensively with cameras like the D4 and D4S, this camera fits the hand like a pair of well-worn jeans. The grip has the same texture, nearly the same shape, and the camera is weighted and balanced in all the same ways.
I wouldn't go so far as to call it comfortable—it's an absolute behemoth of a camera, after all—but for any Nikon shooter it'll still feel great. It's about 2mm taller than its predecessor, but the only noticeable difference is the top plate, where a few controls have been shifted around.
The biggest change is that the Mode button has been pushed all the way out to the left control cluster, with the ISO button (formerly on the rear) replacing it. An innocent bystander is the flash button, which is now a secondary function of the "zoom out" button to the left of the LCD. The ISO button has been replaced with a button that controls continuous drive functions.
The rest of the changes are minor, but also welcome. There's a new "i" menu button on the right side of the LCD, a second customizable Fn button on the front of the camera next to the lens, a very visible LAN indicator on the back near the Ethernet jack, and a third Fn button right beside that.
But the coolest addition has nothing to do with buttons. It's the new 3.2-inch fixed touchscreen XGA LCD, which allegedly works even when you're wearing gloves. It isn't used for menu navigation, but it has smartphone-esque functions for things like selecting an AF point, zooming in on photos to check focus, and even—finally!—using spot white balance in live view.
It's clear that Nikon wanted to give photographers new functionality to make their lives easier without making radical changes that would put off longtime Nikonians. The D5 walks that line with aplomb—there's not a single change here that I think detracts from the shooting experience. Anyone beating the drum for a complete overhaul is going to be disappointed, but given how popular the D4S has been, I don't think many Nikon shooters will be unhappy.
Something old, something new, something borrowed
Most of the D5's best features stem from two key upgrades: the new 20.8-megapixel full-frame sensor and Expeed 5 processor.
This high-caliber combo allows for 12fps continuous shooting in RAW while capturing RAW photos with continuous autofocus, with a max buffer of about 200 shots according to Nikon. Lock up the mirror and it can hit 14fps. That's exceptional, and all but matches the Canon EOS-1D X.
The other major change is the new 153-point autofocus sensor, which has 99 cross-type points spread across the center and edge of the frame. The center cluster of points are sensitive down to -4 EV, which will come in handy when shooting at the D5's absurd maximum sensitivity of ISO 3,280,000 (the native max is "only" ISO 102,400). It's so sensitive that with my hand in front of the lens and the aperture set to f/22, it was still shooting at 1/1000sec and returning a visible (if super noisy) image of my palm.
The new AF system also has some neat new tricks, like using the live view contrast-detect system to quickly make accurate AF micro-adjustments. These micro-adjustments are nothing new, but making them simpler and more accurate would be a major leap forward. We look forward to testing it out in our labs.
The speedy new processor also unlocks a feature working pros have been calling for: H.264 4K video capture. It's the first pro-grade DSLR to accomplish this feat, but it does come with a few caveats. The biggest is that clips recorded to memory cards are limited to three minutes in length, at which point the file system hits its 4GB limit and needs to be reset, according to Nikon. That said, since almost every camcorder (as well as the new Nikon D500) gets around this easily, our guess is that this is actually more of a heat issue and the file size limit is just a convenient excuse.
We imagine that most people shooting 4K video with the D5 will either do so in an emergency or while using an external recorder. With a 4K-compatible recorder, the D5 can output clean, uncompressed 4K footage with no time limit via the HDMI port.
The other big caveat is that the D5 doesn't downsample a full-frame image to create its 4K video. Instead, it shoots in what is basically a DX/Super 35 crop. That stinks if you shoot wide-angle videos, but it's like previous Nikons, which offered a 1:1 video recording option without line skipping. It likely saves the processor from having to apply an anti-aliasing filter, and it should produce sharper footage.
But by far our favorite change is that the D5 now comes in two flavors—one with dual XQD cards, and one with dual CF cards. This is a huge plus for professionals of all stripes, but especially sports and news shooters who frequently use runners and cycle through multiple cards in an outing. Now you can stick to your media type of choice instead of having to carry two of each variety just to ensure you never run out of space.
Likely the best camera Nikon has ever made.
While expensive professional DSLRs like the D5 appeal only to a very small group of shooters, those users have a diverse set of needs. Journalists, wildlife photographers, portrait specialists, sports shooters, birders, private detectives, police surveillance crews, crime scene investigators, and multimedia professionals all make use of these cameras, and often in wildly different ways.
Compared to the D4S, the D5 brings a host of changes that will benefit all of these use cases. It's faster, it has a new sensor, it can shoot in even darker conditions, it has a dramatically improved autofocus system, and the control layout includes some smart revisions. It even shoots 4K video that—some major caveats aside—will help keep the D5 relevant in a world where cameras are being asked to do more than ever.
The D5 certainly isn't perfect. Ultra HD video will be useful to some, but it's certainly not going to dissuade any serious videographer from opting for any of the other (mostly smaller and lighter) full-featured 4K cameras out there. The new autofocus system will serve professionals well, but I'd still like to see Nikon include the kind of granular focus control that Canon offers in all its top-end DSLRs.
But the theme of the D5 is that Nikon is willing to adopt changes if it thinks it will help its customers do their jobs, even it if makes life more difficult for Nikon itself. Having two versions—one for CF cards and one for XQD—is the perfect example; keeping two versions of a flagship product in stock is undoubtedly a challenge that will likely lead to supply chain issues, but it could save customers hundreds of dollars by allowing them to stick with a single type of memory.
Of course, none of this will mean anything if Nikon can't deliver great image quality. We won't know much about that until we get to put the D5 through its paces. But at a show where cameras tend to get lost in the crowd, Nikon's top DSLR is already standing out.