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Review of the Nikon D500 for Wildlife and Bird Photography

Image: Roller with Nikon D500 and Nikon 200-500 f/5.6

Roller with Nikon D500 and Nikon 200-500 f/5.6

Fast action is at the heart of Wildlife photography. Wildlife action is fast and unpredictable. Most of the wildlife, including predators, are active during early dawn and late dusk. During the edge of the day, light conditions are low. Having a range of focal lengths is essential to photograph distant wildlife shots.  The weather conditions are harsh in the wild. Moreover, wildlife photographers try to find a camera which is capable of capturing stunning images in every possible situation in the wild.

Nikon crafted a flagship DX-format DSLR camera – the Nikon D500, with excellent high ISO performance, a faster frame rate, and a fast and accurate focus – even in low light.

What it is?

Image: Nikon D500 with the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 lens mounted on Gitzo Tripod

Nikon D500 with the Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 lens mounted on Gitzo Tripod

The Nikon D500 camera body weighs around 870g (30 oz) including battery and XD card. It is a crop sensor (DX format) DSLR with a 20.9 MP CMOS sensor. The ISO range is from ISO 100 to ISO 51200. This ISO range is useful in getting better image quality even in low light. In addition to high ISO performance,  frame rate and autofocus performance of the Nikon D500 is excellent. Frames per second for Nikon D500 is whooping 10 FPS. The autofocus is fast and accurate in low light as well. Nikon D500 is fully capable of focussing up to f/8 with center focusing points. These key features make the Nikon D500 excellent for Wildlife and Bird photography.

This article is a field-review of Nikon D500 from the perspective of Wildlife Photographer. This review will help you in understanding how the Nikon D500 performs in the field.

Note: All the wildlife and bird images are photographed in the natural forest with uncontrolled light conditions and within their natural habitat.

Images are captured with the Nikon D500 and the Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 lens with a bean bag. Images are captured either from a safari jeep or from a safari boat.

Specifications

  • Sensor and processor – DX format (23.5 mm x 15.7 mm) CMOS sensor with EXPEED 5 processor
  • ISO – ISO 100 to ISO 51200 (ISO Expandable from range ISO 50 to ISO 1640000)
  • AF Modes – Single Servo (AF-S), Continuous Servo (AF-C), Manual and Full-time Servo in Live View
  • AF Area Modes – Single Point AF, Group Area AD, 3D Tracking, Dynamic-area AF with 25, 72 and 153 points, Auto Area AF
  • Power – EN-EL 15 Lithium Ion Battery with MH-25a charger
  • Storage cards – SD, SDHC, SDXC, and XQD cards. One slot for SD card and another slot for XQD card
  • Dimensions and weight – Approximate weight of the body including Battery and card is 870 g (30 oz) and dimensions are (Width x Height X Depth) 5.8 in (147 mm)  x 4.6 in (115 mm) x 3.2 in (81 mm)
  • Frame rate  (FPS: Frames per second) – 10 FPS in Continuous High Mode and for Continuous Low mode FPS Selectable from 2 to 9 FPS
  • Shutter release modes – Single, Continuous Low (2-9 FPS)  and Continuous High (10 FPS), Mirror Up, Self Timer and Quiet release
  • Shutter speed range – Slowest shutter speed is 30 s, and Fastest shutter speed is 1/8000 s
  • Metering modes – Spot metering, Center-weighted metering, and  Matrix metering
  • Exposure mode – Manual (M), Aperture Priority (A), Shutter Priority (S) and Programmed Auto (P)
  • White Balance  – Auto, Cloudy, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Fluorescent, Color Temperature (2500 k to 10000 k)
  • Flash – No Built-in Flash and External Flash is required
  • Image format – JPEG (Basic, Normal, Fine), NEF / RAW (12-bit or 14-bit with an option of Lose less compressed, Compressed and Uncompressed)
  • Lens compatibility – Full compatibility with Nikon AF lenses with G, E, D type and  DX-format lenses. Partial compatibility with PC lenses, AI-P, and Non-CPU lenses

Controls and ergonomics

Image: AF-ON is useful in back button autofocussing. The focus area selection button is next to the...

AF-ON is useful in back button autofocussing. The focus area selection button is next to the AF-ON button. The Nikon D500 has a touch screen, and it can tilt up to a certain angle.

Image: Buttons for selection of White Balance, Exposure Mode, Metering and Image Quality.

Buttons for selection of White Balance, Exposure Mode, Metering and Image Quality.

Image: Shutter release mode dial.

Shutter release mode dial.

Image: Buttons for Exposure compensation, ISO selection, and movie recording.

Buttons for Exposure compensation, ISO selection, and movie recording.

Image: Focus mode selection button.

Focus mode selection button.

Controls

Controls on the camera feel perfect for wildlife photography.

Here is why:

  • Exposure selection mode – This button helps to select the exposure modes – Manual (M), Aperture Priority(A), Shutter Priority(S) and Programmed Auto (P)
  • Frame rate setting – This dial helps to set the Frame rate as Single ( S), Continuous Low ( CL), Continuous High ( CH ), Timer and Mirror lockup
  • ISO and exposure compensation setting – the ISO button allows you to change the ISO quickly
  • Focus point selection dial – The Focus point selection dial helps select focus point
  • Focus mode and Focus area mode selection – This button, along with Primary and secondary dials ( Dials used to change the shutter speed and Aperture), is used to select focus modes as Single, Continuous and Auto. The same button is used to choose focus areas such as Single, 3D, Dynamic with 25,72 and 153 focal points, Group area and Auto-area
  • Metering selection button – You can select Spot, Center of Matrix metering from this button quickly. In Wildlife photography switching between Matrix and Spot metering is often required depending on the light conditions
  • AF- ON button – This is one of the most useful buttons on the Nikon D500 for wildlife photography. If the bird is standing on a tree branch or takes quick flight, the AF-ON button helps to capture the image with accurate focus.

Build quality and weather sealing

  • The Nikon D500 is mostly made up of magnesium alloy, carbon fiber, and plastic
  • The weight and size of the Nikon D500 are suitable for all day shooting and even hand-holding. The size of the D500 is perfect while you travel in the wilderness and it is perfectly sized while hiking and traveling in the safari vehicle.
  • Body toughness of the Nikon D500 is decent but not great as that of Nikon D5. I find the durability of earlier versions, such as Nikon D200, D300 or D700 was better than D500. However, the build quality of Nikon D500 feels slightly better than the Nikon D7100 or the Nikon D7200 but up to the standard of flagship DX body.
  • Protection against dust and water splash is decent enough
  • I have used Nikon D500 in moderately dusty environments and medium drizzle. The camera performs fine. In fact, I clean the camera after a photoshoot in the rain or heavy dust and I recommend you do so too. This type of weather sealing may be sufficient for mild dust and water splashes, but it doesn’t look good enough in extreme weather.

Ergonomics and handling

  • Ergonomically, the Nikon D500 feels just right. Important command dials for wildlife and bird photography are located on the camera body itself. This helps you to change the settings quickly.
  • Hand-holding, the Nikon D500, feels better. One caveat is the video recording button is located a bit oddly. Despite using it multiple times, I still get confused in locating the video recording button. Apart from the video recording button, you will find the buttons and dials are at the right place with the correct size.

Camera performance from the perspective of Nature and Wildlife photographer

Autofocus performance

Image: Osprey in flight. Focus performance of the Nikon D500 for Birds in flight is excellent. Exif...

Osprey in flight. Focus performance of the Nikon D500 for Birds in flight is excellent. Exif : 1/800s , f/8 and ISO 450

Bird action happens fast and can be erratic. Wildlife movement is also fast as it occurs at dawn or dusk. The ability of the camera to focus fast and accurate is a must. With the Multi-Cam 20K Autofocus Sensor module, Nikon D500’s autofocus capabilities are excellent. The Nikon D500 focuses accurately (provided you choose the appropriate focus mode and focus area mode).

I use back button autofocus for focusing. There is a dedicated button for back button autofocus, which is AF-ON.

Image: Hare in the clutter. The Nikon D500 precisely acquires focus on the main object even through...

Hare in the clutter. The Nikon D500 precisely acquires focus on the main object even through the forest clutter.

The Nikon D500 focusses extremely well in following conditions:

  • Daylight
  • Cloudy and rainy weather
  • Low light
  • Distant objects
  • In the forest clutter and forest canopy
  • Dusty and snowy weather
  • Birds in flight and animals in action

In terms of autofocus performance, the Nikon D500 is an absolute winner.

Image: Deer crossing the safari track. The camera’s focus performance for distant objects is excelle...

Deer crossing the safari track. The camera’s focus performance for distant objects is excellent. This deer was crossing the Safari road. The distance between the deer and our vehicle was around 100 meters

Image quality – Colors, details and dynamic range

Image: Colors of the peacock. Color rendition and image quality of the Nikon D500 is great. Exif: 1/...

Colors of the peacock. Color rendition and image quality of the Nikon D500 is great. Exif: 1/100s, f/5.6 and ISO 720

Colors, tonal range, and dynamic range of the Nikon D500 images is excellent. Metering of the Nikon D500 is fantastic. It evaluates and produces correct image exposure.

Image: Stare of an eagle. The Nikon D500 captures the details perfectly. Exif: 1/400s, f/5.6 an ISO...

Stare of an eagle. The Nikon D500 captures the details perfectly. Exif: 1/400s, f/5.6 an ISO 500

For most of my wildlife images, I use Matrix metering. For some tricky light situations, such as harsh lights or shadows, and if the animal is dark or bright, I switch to Spot metering mode. Matrix metering will give you excellent light exposure.

Image: Jungle fowl calling. Feather details are excellent. Exif: 1/250s, f/5.6 and ISO 450

Jungle fowl calling. Feather details are excellent. Exif: 1/250s, f/5.6 and ISO 450

Image: The elephant in its kingdom. Colors and details of the elephant are accurate. Exif: 1/1000s,...

The elephant in its kingdom. Colors and details of the elephant are accurate. Exif: 1/1000s, f/5.6 and ISO 2200

The dynamic range of the Nikon D500 is improved as compared to earlier versions of the DX format Nikon cameras. If the light is sufficient, I set the exposure compensation to +0.3 or +0.7. Exposure compensation shifts the histogram towards the right. It helps in bringing out the details and enhancing the colors in an image.

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography 7

The Dynamic Range of the Nikon D500 is wide. The camera was able to capture the eyes and feathers in the shadow. Equally, the Nikon D500 captured the highlighted crest on the head perfectly.

High ISO and low light performance

Image quality and ISO performance in low light are much improved in the Nikon D500. The camera ISO has a range from ISO 100 to ISO 51200. In controlled light conditions or lab test, the Nikon D500 Images may look less noisy. However, when you are shooting with the Nikon D500 in the real jungle and natural light conditions, you have to be realistic when you select your ISO.

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography 6

Peacock at ISO 1600

I use a maximum ISO up to 6400 in most cases, and for some rare wildlife moments, I go up to ISO 12800. In the forest, especially during the early morning or late evening, an ISO of up to 6400 helps.  With ISO 6400, I can get a sharp image with excellent dynamic range. The colors are also good. These images are perfectly usable for big prints and web-sized images.

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography 5

Bond of Nature. Family portrait at ISO 4000

Whereas, if you go ridiculously high on ISO such as ISO 51200, you will still get an image, but you will have to apply Noise reduction in post-processing. Also, the image loses the fine details. If you are going to print the image, select the reasonable high ISO at the available light conditions.

Bottom line

The Nikon D500 has improved high ISO and low light performance. Up to maximum ISO 6400, images are great. The sharpness and colors are fantastic and noise levels are low and manageable in post-processing.

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography 4

Sambar deer at ISO 6400. It was almost dark in the forest. Luminance noise is visible in the image.

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography 3

Mongoose at ISO 6400. It was almost dark in the forest.

White balance

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography 2

Fish eagle on the perch. Auto White balance for the Nikon D500 produces color temperatures and tint accurately.

The auto white balance of the Nikon D500 is accurate. The camera produces white balance without any shift in color or tint. All the color temperatures look right.

Other than Auto White balance, there are different white balances available such as Daylight and Shade. All produce good results.

For wildlife and bird photography, I recommend you choose Auto White Balance. It will help to reproduce the correct white balance for your images. If you want to add creative effects, you can always tune the raw image in post-processing.

Bonus: My D500 camera settings for wildlife and bird photography

  • Image Quality: RAW
  • NEF (RAW) Recording: NEF RAW Compression: Loose-less compressed and Bit Depth: 14-Bit Depth
  • Color space: Adobe RGB
  • Picture Control: Standard (SD)
  • ISO: Auto ISO with Maximum ISO as 6400 (It will depend on the lighting conditions, but I find 6400 is the right balance for image quality and low noise)
  • Autofocus mode: AF-C (Continuous)
  • Autofocus Area mode: Dynamic (25 points) or Group area focus
  • Exposure mode: Manual (Shutter speed and Aperture will be set based on the available light in the environment). You can also use Aperture priority as an Exposure Mode.
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Metering: Matrix
  • For autofocus, use Back button autofocus: AF-ON
  • Shutter release mode: Continuous High CH (10 FPS) or Continuous Low CL (6 FPS)

Conclusion and recommendations

Pros

  • 10 FPS (Frames Per Second)
  • Fast and accurate focus even in low light
  • Good High ISO Performance
  • Superb image quality and dynamic range
  • Excellent ergonomics
  • Perfect location of camera buttons and dials
  • Autofocus with central autofocus points up to Aperture of f/8

Cons

  • No Built-in flash and GPS
  • Location of the video recording button
  • Above average Build quality and weather sealing (Not the best in class)

In summary

The DX sensor, superior autofocus performance, high ISO performance, best in class frames per second (10 FPS), and travel-friendly size makes the Nikon D500 perfect for wildlife and bird photography.

You will love using Nikon D500 in the wild.

What do you think about the Nikon D500 camera? Please do let us know in the comments below!

 

Nikon D500 review for wildlife and bird photography

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Shreyas Yadav
Shreyas Yadav

is an Engineer, Wildlife and Nature photographer from India. He is also a writer and lifelong adventure explorer. Through his writings, he teaches about digital post-processing and nature photography. He shares field techniques about nature photography, post-processing and wildlife photo stories on his website.