Nikon D5 Review —Hands-On With A New Flagship

Nikon D5 river shoot

The Nikon D5 is easily the best SLR the company has ever made, and it’s the best SLR on the market today, albeit only by a little margin over the Canon 1DX Mark II. Certainly there have been some stalwart cameras from Nikon—the original Nikon F, the F3, the F5 and the digital E2 and D2 spring to mind. But the Nikon D5 contains the best-in-class technology Nikon has ever fielded in a number of areas. It is built around the best focus system, fastest actuating shutter system, most comprehensive and powerful metering system and most robust image buffering and recording technology in any of its cameras.

On paper the D5 seems to be less of a technological leap than, say, the D3 was compared to the D2, but in an era of maturing SLR technology, each tweak is aimed at improving performance and workflow—something that is as crucial to the working professional as dynamic range and bit-depth. The result is one of the most incredibly sophisticated cameras the world has ever seen.

The Nikon D5 is incredibly versatile.
The Nikon D5 is incredibly versatile, rugged and creates stunning images.

Technology Expert

The D5 has a number of important upgrades over the D4S. The camera has a 20.8MP sensor (vs. 16 for the D4S), a 180k pixel RGB metering sensor (vs. 90k), 153 AF points (vs. 51), 12fps capture (vs. 11), an extended battery life of 3780 shots (vs. 3020), 2.36M pixel touchscreen LCD (vs. 920k non-touchscreen LCD), 4K video, and an ISO range from ISO 100-25,600 natively and 3,276,800 extended.

That makes the D5 perform significantly better in all regards than the D4S, but there are some tradeoffs and limitations to be found in the camera as well. 4K video is limited to 30p, for example, whereas many systems can capture 60p.

A more practical caveat (though possibly a feature not a limitation) is the dynamic range of the sensor. Because of the emphasis on high ISO performance, the dynamic range of the D5 is actually a bit lower at the low end of the ISO range than as the ISO climbs. That makes sense for the target audience of this camera—photojournalists and location shooters who often need to capture in low light and want to maximize that performance.

With slightly reduced dynamic range at the bottom end, portrait shooters and others working with studio situations might want to look at other solutions, but news, sports and those shooting in low light have a truly compelling system with the D5. The ability of the D5 to focus down to -4EV is further indication that Nikon has created a platform that can exceed the practical biological limitations of the humans who operate it.

At 20MP, the D5 isn’t as packed with pixels as the company’s D810, though it has more than enough resolution to get the job done. It’s obviously aimed at those for whom speed and sensitivity are a priority over pure pixel counts. I took the D5 out as a reference platform when reviewing the Hasselblad H6D, Phase One XF 100MP and Pentax 645Z, and as expected, all three cameras clearly had higher resolution than the D5. All three medium format cameras fell far behind in terms of system performance, operation, metering, tracking and focus speed. So Images from the D5 had less resolution but were more often in focus and properly metered, and (thanks to the speed) I could shoot 10 images for every single shot from the medium format system, if necessary.

In the film era, it was crucial that the flagship SLR be an all-arounder as the film stock used was largely the determining factor in the resolution of the images. A Nikon F3 was as likely to be used on the battlefield as it was in a studio. As digital cameras evolved, it became clear that there was no such thing as an all-in-one camera. Early on, Nikon solved this by making models that focused on speed and models that focused on sensitivity and resolution in the same top-end lineup. I’m sure some of this had to do with the available resources for making digital cameras and the need to continue making both film and digital bodies.

It has become increasingly clear, and increasingly viable, to make cameras with different levels of performance and different target audiences, without having to make them all fit into the flagship body. The Nikon D750, for example, packed the features of the D4 into a body small enough to be perfect for the wedding shooter. The Nikon D810 emphasizes sensor resolution but doesn’t need to be housed in a body capable of shooting 12fps.

So Nikon (and its arch-nemesis, Canon) have instead made the top-end body meet the needs of the working shooters who demand fast speed, high sensitivity and the ability to get a job done no matter what the weather and no matter how adverse the shoot.

The company has also responded to the encroachment of the mirrorless camera systems by adding hallmarks of those systems. The D5 can do face detection and scene recognition, a trick that was previously an advantage of shooting with a mirrorless system with phase-detect photos on-sensor. Through custom settings, the D5 can be set to 3D tracking with face tracking, which enables a photographer to set a focus point on a subject, and when/if the camera detects a face, it will lock onto that focus point until it loses face detection.

Despite a lack of eye-detection focus, the AF still can lock onto faces incredibly easily.
Despite a lack of eye-detection focus, the AF still can lock onto faces incredibly easily.

This works incredibly well, and sports shooters have been raving about it online. The D5 still doesn’t have the ability to perform eye-detection focus, as the Sony a7R II can, but that’s clearly not far behind.

In a technological advance that might seem trivial on the surface, the D5 has added touchscreen functionality to the LCD screen, which I’m thrilled about. Often during a shoot I’ll try to zoom in on a portion of the image to determine critical focus, but having to use buttons and dials in combination was a cumbersome process (and I often found myself zooming out by accident, all the way to a thumbnail view). Being able to swipe and pinch an image is great, and it’s also great to set menu items and enter information with the touchscreen.

The touchscreen allows you to focus during video but also allows for live white balance metering—you can set a custom white balance preset by tapping on an area of the screen. This is a great boon to event and wedding photographers, who need to keep white balance consistent between different lighting conditions.

There are other great features in this camera, that are less sexy than the ISO range but are no less important. One favorite of mine is a new tool for easily micro-calibrating a lens. Because lens optics are incredibly complex, the focus points of lenses can be minutely off, so that what the camera considers “in focus” is actually slightly back or front focused. Years ago, cameras added in-camera tools to make micro adjustments, essentially correcting for the focus issues by changing the focus point, much like a pair of glasses would.

These tools were so cumbersome that even as a reviewer of cameras and lenses, I usually skipped this process. The D5 has a new system that uses the LiveView focusing and a few button presses to evaluate and register the necessary focus adjustments. This is a huge improvement, and it will allow photographers to easily calibrate all of their glass, resulting in a much higher rate of success.

One interesting design choice was to provide two different models of the Nikon D5, one with dual CompactFlash slots and one with dual XQD slots. This new media format is the next generation of storage both in terms of capacity and transfer speed. XQD cards blow today’s CompactFlash cards out of the water in terms of data recording and reading. While the XQD model will probably be mainly the choice of heavy video users, I’m going to implore you to embrace the new technology and buy the XQD version.

Even if you never shoot video, the workflow time savings found when importing images with a USB 3 XQD reader are profound. No matter your hourly billable rate, when you shave your importing time down to a third of the time you’re currently spending, new cards pay for themselves quickly. XQD cards are more durable than CF cards as well—or more to the point, XQD slots are more durable. The CompactFlash card has a series of holes for small copper pins, and while uncommon, it’s possible to bend the pins in a camera, rendering it useless. XQD doesn’t have this design flaw, and the result is a more durable tool.

Video shooters will like the 4K video abilities and that the camera outputs uncompressed 4K across the built-in HDMI port, but will be disappointed that the video is limited to 30fps. It’s also important to note that the 4K capture area is a cropped center of the frame, eliminating some of the real estate found with wide glass. It’s possible to shoot video with a larger portion of the sensor, but only in HD.

Taken individually, each improvement in the D5 might not seem earth shattering, but taken as a whole, the D5 is a much better camera than the D4S. I know many Nikon photographers who hold out until the “S” version of the pro body, as they feel it’s a greater refinement of the system, and I understand the merits of that upgrade approach, but with the D5, I think it’s time for that to change. The D5 has so many improvements in so many areas that it’s worth the upgrade now.

The Hudson River at night, captured at ISO 25,600. At these speeds, no tripod was needed. The low levels of noise are impressive.
The Hudson River at night, captured at ISO 25,600. At these speeds, no tripod was needed. The low levels of noise are impressive.
The same scene at ISO 81,275
The same scene at ISO 81,275. There is much more noise, but it was easily removed in post.

Nikon Vs. The World

Because of the dominance of Nikon and Canon in the professional camera space, the D5 is positioned in a head-to-head battle with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which we reviewed, and I feel comes in just ever-so-slightly behind the D5. The Canon EOS 1D X Mark II has a few design choices that, to use a horse racing analogy, allowed the Nikon D5 to win by a nose. Part of this has to do with where both systems are in their design cycle—the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, as the “Mark II” implies, is an update to the 1D, while the D5 is the company’s full product upgrade, having replaced the incremental Nikon D4S. (In other words, the D4S was Nikon’s Mark II.)

When combined with the Tamron 90mm Macro, the resolution power of the D5's sensor is obvious.
When combined with the Tamron 90mm Macro, the resolution power of the D5’s sensor is obvious.

Most of those design differences would have a small impact on photographers, but some give a technological edge to the D5, while others favor the Canon.

In the category of smaller issues, the 1D X Mark II has one Compact Flash and one CFast slot, which are very similar in physical shape but totally incompatible, something that’s going to end up being confusing during a busy shoot. That’s an issue that the D5 solves by having two models available—one with dual CF slots and one with dual XQD slots.

But there are more important differences as well. In the video realm, Canon’s 1D X Mark II does 4K video to 60p (vs 30p for the D5), but the HDMI port doesn’t provide a 4K stream, only HD. This doesn’t seem to be a technological limitation—the Nikon D5 can output 4K over HDMI, as can the newer Sony a7 cameras, so it’s surprising to see this missing on the 1D X Mark II. This might be a limitation imposed so that Canon doesn’t cut into sales of its pro video cameras.

The 1D X Mark II has faster capture (by 2 frames per second) but the AF sensor in the 1D X Mark II has 61 points of AF, and the D5 has a whopping 153, of which 99 are cross type, vs 41 cross-type sensors on the 1D X Mark II. While the 1D X Mark II has improved its distance-based subject detection and tracking, in my tests the D5 edges it out, likely thanks to the greater number of points and the more mature 3D Tracking engine.

ISO on the D5 goes from 100-102,400 natively and to 3,280,000 in extended mode. The 1D X Mark II ranges from ISO 100-52,200 and extends to 409,600.

That said, there are some places where the 1D X Mark II trounces the Nikon D5, most notably in video operation. Canon has integrated its Dual Pixel AF technology in the 1D X Mark II, which allows for autofocus in real-time in video mode. The touchscreen of the 1D X Mark II, which has no other real function, becomes a focusing touch-pad—a tremendous way to capture video. If you’re shooting DSLR video, the 1D X Mark II is a better choice, but then again, if you’re primarily shooting video you’re probably on Canon already anyhow.

Again, to be fair, the 1D X Mark II is an intermediate upgrade to its flagship camera, while the D5 is at the reboot phase of the flagship cycle, so naturally the D5 will pack some stronger punches. We’re also not insinuating that the 1D X Mark II is inferior, only that there are differences that give a slight edge to the D5 this round.


If you’re a Nikon shooter, the Nikon D5 is an amazing choice, though your business cash flow statements will determine whether the $6500 camera is a viable purchase. For Nikon D4 shooters, the D5 is a definite improvement in almost every regard—if you were waiting to see if the next Nikon would be worth it, it is.

Even if you’re a Nikon D4S shooter, this camera is worth it (and luckily the resale value on a D4S is better than a D4). The increase from 51 AF points to 153 alone makes the D5 worth it, but it also has a better metering sensor, better video functionality, better screen, higher resolution sensor and 4K video capabilities.

In any case, the Nikon D5 is a massively important camera in the history of Nikon SLR systems, and the history of SLRs in general. If you’ve been waiting for a new top-end camera from Nikon, you’ll find the Nikon D5 was well worth the wait.

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