D500. Further Impressions and My Findings about Setting It Up

Hi folks!

In this post I wrote about my first impressions regarding the Nikon D500 camera. At that time I was just beginning to discover this “beast”. Now after almost eight months of using it (in which I took over 10000 pictures) I can say I have a much clearer view (and I’m not talking about the optical finder here!). So I would like to provide you more of my findings hoping that they will be useful for the ones purchasing or owning such a camera. But before I do this I must mention following: this is not supposed to be a professional review but more like a (subjective) opinion based exclusively on my field experience with the camera. It is addressed primarily to the enthusiastic segment as the the full time pros are supposed to know their needs well (to quote Ken Rockwell “you people know who you are”). But if this post is useful to them too I can only be glad. Regarding absolute beginners I simply don’t recommend D500 as it is way too advanced and the attempt to master it might cause a lot of frustration and disappointment. In my opinion there are more appropriate cameras for beginners namely each consumer camera up to the Nikon D7XXX series.

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Now let me present you my impressions and findings.

1. Sensor

As you probably already know the D500 is primarily a sports camera due to its professional-grade auto-focus and burst rate, yet it can be used successfully in any other scenario: landscapes, macro, portraits, time lapses etc (see photos at the end of the post). In my opinion the number of megapixels (21) is more than enough for most situations and there is plenty of detail if quality lenses and good technique are being used (heck, you can obtain unforgettable pictures even with a 10 Megapixels camera!).  That said its sensor is excellent, at least for a DX (crop sensor) camera. Regarding ISO I usually don’t exceed 1600 but I managed to get usable photos at ISO 3200 and more. For example the below photo with the flying pigeon had been taken at a camera calculated ISO of 2800. When editing it I applied moderate noise reduction on the bird and high reduction on background. After downsizing it to 6MPX (no more noise visible) it got accepted on the stock site I am currently posting to (and trust me they usually reject photos when any noise artefacts are present).

Regarding dynamic range details can be recovered effortlessly both from highlights and shadows at low ISO values (100-400) and reasonably well at higher ISO (up to 1600 and when exposure is done correctly). See the below before/after pictures with the squirrel (ISO180 calculated by camera). The second picture has been accepted on all stock sites I’m uploading to.

Also I have seen neither color degradation (at least not for ISO values that don’t exceed 6400) nor banding (which used to occur on my older D7100 at massive underexposure). The sensor does a really amazing work!

One caveat though: good care should be employed when sharpening is added to pictures at editing. It should only be applied to objects that require it so in other words use a proper masking technique in Photoshop, Lightroom or whatever editing software you are processing the photos with, otherwise you might get the impression that even at lower ISO settings D500 is a “noisy” camera (which is not the case at all!). I got fooled by this but then realised that not the camera had an issue but it was instead my fault of leaving the default Lightroom sharpening applied over the entire frame. As a general rule sharpening would need to be added to objects that are in focus and have plenty of detail. Sky, still water or anything that is out of focus should never have sharpening applied.

2. Shooting and settings banks

This is one of the most important points to be taken into consideration. The D500 like all other Nikon professional-grade DSLR doesn’t have the U1/U2 dial settings the mid-range consumer cameras have. This brings both advantages and disadvantages. Some might see it as a disadvantage that these settings are not “sticky”, i.e. any change that is done within a bank (e.g. ISO) automatically gets retained there. This means you cannot apply the same pre-defined setup with a simple wheel turn unless you don’t touch the settings at all after creating them the first time (which to be honest would be pretty absurd – you DO need to perform changes from time to time). For others this might prove to be an advantage. Say for example you had a birds-in-flight scenario for which you had previously changed settings (e.g. 1/4000 shutter speed instead of the default setup 1/500). Then you want to shoot a landscape and thus switch to another bank with different settings. You take the picture and then another bird in flight appears so you switch back. In that very moment you have the same settings as used previous time and you can shoot immediately. In a U1/U2 camera you would have to re-apply those settings again over and over as they get reset to default once you leave that bank (so again 1/500). My thought about this? Well, I prefer to see the advantage! But I can say that mastering the banks setup and usage requires some good discipline.

So I come to you with following pieces of advice:

  • Think well about the photo scenarios you usually practice. Do a brainstorming, write the required settings down before starting the banks setup. Try to group them. For example I use similar settings for macro (insects) and slow (swimming or walking) birds. Only the aperture differs and this can easily be changed by a wheel turn. So I don’t need two banks for this! After deciding the scenarios and settings you can do the initial banks setup. It is pretty straightforward: just choose the settings/shooting bank (you can also name them which I really recommend) and alter the factory default settings. The new ones are retained automatically, no need for a “save settings” action! Indeed setting all required banks might take longer than it takes for a consumer camera but it is a one time operation followed by incremental changes. So do it carefully and efficiently to ensure best performance.
  • Try to use only the number of custom settings banks that you absolutely require. Switching between them occurs from the menu (not by buttons/wheels) and they contain settings that normally wouldn’t change so often (like button assignment). I only use two custom setting banks. The difference between them is the configuration of some camera buttons  as for event photography (which I practise seldom) I need a button for enabling/disabling external flash. So I can say that 90-95% of the time I only use one slsettings bank only.
  • However use all available shooting banks if possible and as mentioned before know exactly to which scenarios they should apply. For example I configured my 4 shooting banks as follows:  A – for static scenarios (e.g. landscapes), B – moving subjects (swimming birds, walking birds, birds in flight, animals, insects/macro), C- panning, D – test pictures and “non-editables” (a.k.a. JPEG – e.g. pictures taken with friends, other event pictures that I don’t edit). Also make sure you assign an accessible button for switching between shooting banks. I assigned the video button as I don’t shoot video anyway (so why not use it for something useful?). As for the modes I use within banks these are: aperture priority or manual for bank A, manual with auto-ISO for bank B, shutter priority for bank C and same modes for bank D as for A. For bank D I might also change the picture control due to the fact that JPEGs are taken straight out from camera. For all other banks I shoot RAW and keep the neutral picture control. The exposure triangle is obviously adjusted according to the scenario and chosen mode (for example in bank B I usually keep a wide-open aperture).
  • As mentioned before, good discipline is required when changing settings. Know exactly what needs to be changed for each bank, when this should be done and when settings need to be restored. Please keep in mind that there are bank-specific settings and global settings. This is a huge difference comparing to consumer U1/U2 cameras! Global settings are: exposure metering, exposure compensation, auto-focus type and area and obviously the “mechanical” settings: AF lock, burst rate, VR/VC, AF/MF. These settings should be set to a default, changed only when required and brought back to default IMMEDIATELY when the scenario that required the change is over. This is how I do:
    • first I change the shooting bank
    • then I change the bank settings (most often aperture, ISO and shutter speed)
    • finally I adjust the global settings to the required values (“default” values that apply to the used bank). The global  settings I usually change are VR, burst rate and exposure compensation. For example I always set VR ON for bank A. Sometimes exposure metering needs to be altered too. I’ll write about this in a different post.
    • again, each time I have to change a global setting to a different value (e.g. apply 0.7EV compensation to the exposure in aperture priority) I bring it back immediately to original value (0 EV) once no more needed. This is one of the settings that photographers might tend to forget about so take good care!

Good discipline comes from exercise. Imagine different scenarios and practise settings change. I have a good reason for taking test pictures (that I don’t edit/keep) from time to time. Practice until this becomes a reflex. And then practice again so you don’t forget! Also try to configure the camera so few changes are required in critical scenarios. For example I use auto-ISO for moving subjects as I don’t have time to go full-manual when I suddenly see a bird that might vanish in any second. Also try the back-button focus. You won’t need to switch back and forth from AF-S to AF-C. More details about this particular point are provided below.

3. Ergonomics

The buttons of the camera are conveniently placed and highly configurable. Let me provide more details. After purchasing D500 I learned a new technique that some of you probably use extensively: the AF-ON or back-button focus. This technique is very useful as it separates focus from shooting thus providing way more flexibility. You can use continuous AF and never worry about switching back to AF-S. You can also forget about switching to manual focus if you have a lens with manual focus override (otherwise please DO switch or else you might ruin the lens!). How do I do this? Well, although one button is enough I configured THREE buttons on my camera to enable this technique without the need to change the focus area frequently:

  • the regular AF-ON button is configured with focus area D25. The area can be changed to D72, D153, single point or group AF
  • the joystick press is configured with single point AF, focus area stays unchanged
  • the PV button is configured with group AF and the focus area remains unchanged

I deactivated the 3D tracking as it is not useful for the kind of photography I am practicing (I don’t do much sports). Also as mentioned I limited the focus type to continuous (AF-C). This said I have the most used AF combinations at hand in the same time and I am free to choose either of them. If needed I can also switch to the D72/153 but I rarely need these. This is a way of making one’s life easier by doing less changes in the settings in critical situations. It is also an example of how configurable this camera is.

One note regarding autofocusing with the joystick button: I advise locking the AF by using the switch unless you wish to change the AF point. This is because it can happen very easily to accidentally switch to another point if not pushing the button perpendicularly, which might ruin the composition and result in missed shots when a critical scenario occurs (like a birds-in-flight shooting). I usually use the centre point with AF lock to shoot birds in flight. For macro photography I unlock the focus as I need to frequently change the AF point as the insect moves on the flower.

Regarding joystick it is really worth using it for changing the focus point. On the one hand it’s convenient as you can move the point and then focus effectively by pressing. On the other hand unlike arrow keys it works even when the LCD screen is active (you are in a menu or photos are being displayed) by fulfilling the above mentioned functions. So I recommend you practise to get used to it!

Last but not least almost each button setting can be done without taking the eye from the viewfinder. A notable exception is the white balance but this setting is not so frequently changed anyway. Even the burst rate can be changed easily if you know the positions by heart and memorise the last setting. For example you just need to turn the wheel twice (clockwise) to change from single shot to continuous high. Also even if the shooting banks are not visible in the viewfinder they can be changed by recognizing the settings and/or knowing which the current bank is. If I see auto-ISO in the finder then I know  that I’m in bank B and so on. It might take some practice but you’ll get used. Sometimes I tend to forget what each of the four buttons from the top left side do (if I have my eyes in the viewfinder) but I found a way to remember them easily by using the cardinal directions: white balance (WB) is in the West, exposure metering occurs in the East, North is for image quality and exposure mode is changed in the South.

4. Live view and articulated screen

Well, usually I use the viewfinder to take pictures. However there are some situations when the big LCD display really makes a difference. One of these is when a neutral density (ND) filter is being used! Well yeah when the filter takes cuts light by 9-10 stops you really cannot see anything through the finder, can you? But when using the LCD in live view the situation is different: if settings are done correctly you can see everything nice and clear so a good composition can be achieved. So don’t be afraid to use the LCD in such cases as it really makes your life easier. The fact that it is articulated is most welcome when shooting from grass level or above the head.

Regarding the resolution and quality the LCD provides, is so good that I do the primary sorting of the pictures (including “junk” removal) directly IN CAMERA. Then the remaining shots are copied into the computer and the selection continues there. It is simply fantastic! Of course I only do this after arriving home and never in the field so I can save battery energy. This is because unlike my previous cameras D500 is pretty energy hungry so I recommend purchasing a second battery if more than 1000 pictures are planned in a session.

5. Burst rate and cards

Again, it really makes the difference. And you don’t need to be a sports photographer to realise this. One typical scenario when the high burst rate might be employed is photographing a jumping person in a park or at the seaside. The 10 frames per second really count in such situations! I usually use the high burst rate for birds in flight, airshow photography and sometimes even for insects. Each additional frame counts! I don’t shoot for more than 2-3 seconds with the continuous high (CH) setting so I cannot say I absolutely need the XQD card for ensuring a sustained rate. However I advise you to have both card slots filled. It’s a shame not to do this when you have just bought a pro camera. You can benefit from extra capacity and/or use the second card as backup. So use both SD and XQD. For example I use XQD for RAW files and SD for JPEGs and timelapse movies. Also you don’t necessarily need a card reader for XQD. I connect the camera to my computer by using the provided USB cable and am more than satisfied about how the file transfer occurs. It is lightning fast with the XQD and fast enough with the SD card. So why spend 50-100 EUR extra for a reader? Also you don’t need to worry about forgetting the cards at home or having them worn out by continuously inserting and removing them into/from camera.

Well, so much about findings. Bottom line: I really recommend this camera for each enthusiastic photographer that is willing to spend the money for it. You won’t regret the purchase as long as you are willing to learn more about settings and improve your photography knowledge in general. This camera really motivated me to step up! Be aware that there will be a learning curve which might be pretty steep. It’s a big difference comparing to any consumer DSLR camera but as soon as you master its secrets you’ll know you made the right choice. The secret is: read much (or watch as many videos as possible) and practice even more! Go out shooting at least once a week, even more often if you have time. It will pay off and you’ll never want to go back to your old camera again!

Guys, I tried to share my experience in as much detail as possible. There are many things to say about D500 but this post is already long enough so I wouldn’t go in further stuff for the moment. But please feel free to share your thoughts and ask me any question you might have about this camera and if possible I will gladly help.

Take care!

P.S. Check these posts too:

The Magic of Fog. Welcome to the Misty Mountains!
Why Snow is a Perfect Setup for Photography
Ice and Icicles
Meet the Ringflash

 

 

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