Nikon D500 Review: ISO Performance
Low-light shooting conditions are not normally when you expect to see a crop-sensor camera shine. In recent years shooting the D7100 and the D7200, I would start to get nervous when ISO pushed past about 800, and by 1,600 I’d consider not shooting at all. I just have not had confidence in getting good results at high ISOs. Expectations have been high for the D500 to bring some kind of incredible breakthrough in low-light performance.
Some even thought we would somehow see multiple stop improvements over existing crop-sensor cameras and the D500 would equal or better full-frame cameras like the D750 in terms of dynamic range and noise levels. Have those expectations been met? No, they have not. That’s mainly because the expectations were in large part completely unrealistic. But while lab testing has shown that the sensor in the D500 performs at close to the same levels as the D7200’s sensor, I have had my eyes opened by some examples of what the D500 can produce at ISO settings that I had thought were completely out of the range of a cropped sensor. And maybe I’ve been selling the D7200 short all this time.
Tom Redd got it into his head that shooting hummingbirds at ISOs well above 3,200 was a good idea and wanted to share the results. I’m blown away by this ISO 4,500 shot! First of all, it’s crazy sharp and while there’s plenty of noise in the raw capture, it doesn’t seem to break down the fine details in the image the way I would have expected. Below are 100% crops of the above image showing the noise and how it is handled by Adobe Lightroom.
This is the unedited raw capture with Lightroom’s default sharpening and noise reduction zeroed out. It’s certainly noisy, but fine detail is present in the feathers and even here you can see it’s a sharp image.
Here, I enabled Lightroom’s default color noise reduction and you can see that the color speckling in the background has been tidied up nicely, but at the cost of destroying the rich greens and pinks in the feathers. The hummingbird now looks washed out and dull.
After some tweaking, I determined that a setting of just 5 for color noise reduction, as opposed to the default of 25, was sufficient for cleaning up the true color noise while leaving untouched the richness and range of green tones in the forehead feathers and the vibrant pinks of the gorget.
And finally, some luminance noise reduction and sharpening was applied. Re-sampling down to a lower resolution will of course also help with perceived noise and sharpness, which is evident in the full image at the top.
Is Nikon D500 The Best Wildlife Camera?
Is the D500 the best camera available today for wildlife photography? I’m going to assert that, in some cases, it is. And it comes down to this – the crop factor. I’m not talking about the 1.5x multiplier for DX versus FX, at least not directly. I’m talking about the dirty secret of wildlife photography, which is cropping.
Very often, it is not possible or not advisable to approach our subject close enough for it to be as large in the frame as we would like. It is one of the biggest challenges of shooting wildlife and why the D800/D810s are popular wildlife cameras, despite having a slow frame rate (by today’s standards) and falling behind D4/D5s in dynamic range at high ISO settings. All those pixels can be a lifesaver for cropping. So it’s about pixels on the subject. But not only that. It’s also about dynamic range and the resulting noise levels in an image. High dynamic range and low noise are why we want to shoot full-frame. But what happens when you crop that full-frame image? Read on…
Bill Claff’s Photons to Photos website is a respected resource for image sensor data. His analysis covers most camera models from a lot of manufacturers and allows for objective assessment of how a camera sensor will perform across the full range of available ISO settings in absolute terms as well as versus other cameras. For the Nikon FX models, he not only provides full-frame data but also data for the FX sensor cropped to DX equivalent. The results are very interesting, particularly with regard to the D500 and the D5.
It is remarkable that up to ISO 2,000 the D500 has greater, or at least equal dynamic range, and beyond that the difference is no more than about a third of a stop in favor of the D5. Remember, this is the D5 cropped to DX size, not full-frame. The absolute numbers are not particularly important, just the relative differences between the two cameras. Visit the this page on Photons to Photos and make your own comparisons with other cameras.
The point of looking at it this way is that for subjects that are small in the frame (DX size or smaller) you might be better off with a D500 than a D5. The obvious part of that is the resolution. The D5 sensor cropped to DX is about 8.9 MP and so there is a big advantage to shooting with a high pixel density camera like the D500.
But by cropping the D5, you are not just throwing away pixels, but also light. You are forgoing the inherent light gathering advantage of a full-frame sensor. And the graph above shows that on a level-playing field, the D500 sensor really shines (as does the D7200 sensor). At high ISOs the D5 does still pull ahead, but these are ISOs that I am not normally going to be shooting at, so the small difference is not very relevant to me.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. When you can use all of the full-frame sensor, the D5 has a distinct advantage over most of the ISO range. And it has advantages in other areas too. But given the enormous price differential between the two, the D500 sure looks good in this kind of comparison. If you have a D5 and are often cropping to 9 MP or less, then maybe you need a D500 in your bag as well.
We wrote a dedicated page for using the D500 as a wildlife camera, which you can find later in the review.
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