Come with me on a journey back in time... way, way back to 2009. That's the last time Nikon put out a new flagship APS-C DSLR. Before full-frame 35mm sensors became more commonplace, crop-sensor models like the D300s and Canon 7D were the best many enthusiasts could do without going bankrupt.
We thought we'd seen the end of the APS-C flagship era, but as it turns out, we were completely wrong.
Canon finally updated its EOS 7D to the new Mark II last year, and all told, was a fine near-professional camera, ideal for sports and wildlife photogs. But at CES 2016, Nikon pulled the curtain back on the new Nikon D500 (MSRP $1,999 body-only), a modern, rugged, full-featured DX format body.
Announced alongside Nikon's new flagship D5 DSLR, the D500 has some of the best technology we've ever seen in a camera of its stature. This is a camera that pulls no punches, leaves no use case unaddressed, and might just be the best APS-C DSLR ever produced. After years of waiting, it appears APS-C fans finally have had their prayers answered.
Design & Usability
Everything you'd expect from the D5, just in a smaller body
At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the D500 was actually a reworked Nikon D750. Like the D750, it trades heavily on its beefy grip and tightly-built metal case, which is studded with a flip-up screen and ports of all shapes and sizes. Were it not for the prominent model number, this camera would blend in with Nikon's gaggle of top-tier full-frame DSLRs. Regardless, it's perfectly low-key, exactly as it should be.
We were able to get our hands on the D500 at Nikon's booth on the CES 2016 show floor, and it really made an impression. From its deep grip and meaty shutter release to its expertly positioned buttons, this camera just feels right. D300s owners and other seasoned Nikonians should adapt instantaneously to this model.
Perhaps the best feature cribbed from the D750 is a tilting, 3.2-inch rear LCD. Once you've used a camera with a flexible, vari-angle touchscreen it's tough to go back; Nikon was smart to add this feature to the D500, even if it could have a slight effect on durability.
Screen aside, the D500 looks more like a "pro" Nikon DSLR than any other APS-C body in the lineup, going so far as to include an independent thumbstick for AF point selection—something even the full-frame D610 doesn't have. You also get a pro-grade drive/mode/exposure knob—yet another touch that shows exactly who Nikon is targeting with this camera.
If you're crazy about ports, the D500 packs an impressive array into its sturdy chassis, with options for flash sync, remote control, headphones, a microphone, USB 3.0, and HDMI. The D500 uses SD and XQD memory cards, with one slot for each. This is also the first Nikon APS-C camera to use the brand-new ImageBridge technology, but we'll get to that later.
High performance, from the inside out.
I expected the D500 to be impressive, but Nikon's announcement blew away even my wildest expectations of what it might include. The company could have just pumped out an APS-C version of the D750 and called it a day, but what it did was much better than that. This camera features some of the best technology Nikon has ever put inside a camera, including groundbreaking features like 4K video capture and a new 153-point autofocus system.
Ultra HD recording is old hat for competing high-end cameras from Panasonic and Sony, but it's a first in a DSLR (concurrently with the D5). Even though it shoots in crop-sensor mode, getting 4K/30p from this camera is a big, big deal—especially considering you also get microphone and headphone jacks. The HDMI port can even output a clean signal to an external recorder. It's hard to judge video output on the rear LCD, but rest assured we'll give the footage a serious shakedown in our full review.
Perhaps the feature we're most excited to try out is Nikon's SnapBridge WiFi transfer. It allows the camera to maintain a direct connection with your phone via Bluetooth LE, and can transfer photos as they're taken, instead of forcing you to manually select and send each one. Having used many different frustrating WiFi enabled cameras over the years, this upload method can't come fast enough.
The D500's AF system is taken wholesale from the D5, which means we had sky-high expectations. And as expected, on the busy (and slightly dim) show floor it had no problem locking on and tracking subjects quickly and confidently—even in live view. Better still, the lightning fast AF is paired with flagship-rivaling burst shooting speed (around 10 fps). The camera's buffer can hold 200 shots, which is fantastic for wildlife and sport use and doubles the D7200's 100-shot bucket.
A camera that surpassed our expectations
While many of Nikon's DSLRs look alike, the company has made it apparent to me over the years that it has a very clear concept of which cameras are for pros and which are for enthusiasts. You can see this divide in the spec sheets; cameras like the D610—despite its full-frame sensor—are clearly thought of as lower-tier.
So it's surprising to not only see the flagship APS-C concept come roaring back, but to find that it feels just as rough-and-ready as Nikon's pro-grade bodies. The D500 breathes new life into a seemingly forgotten genre, throwing all of Nikon's latest imaging technology into a camera that should appeal to photographers at all skill levels.
Quite frankly, we're glad to have it. Nikon could've just slapped an APS-C sensor in the D610 or D750 and called it a day, but the D500 is so much more than that. It's faster, it has serious video chops, and its design feels rock solid—ready for the rigors of shooting in the field.
It's similar in many ways to the approach Canon took with the 7D Mark II, but goes even further, including features that no other Nikon camera offers (even the D5). So while the D5 is undoubtedly Nikon's most powerful camera, but the D500 is easily the one we're most excited to play with. Stay tuned for our in-depth lab review.