Early in 2018, after over a decade of shooting birds with Canon equipment, I switched to the Nikon system, aka the dark side. Many have asked why it took me such a long time to publish the review of Nikon’s flagship D5 which is the first piece of Nikon equipment I received back in Jan ’18. I wanted to put the Nikon rig into its paces and deliver an objective review based on its field performance, rather than on the short lived excitement and the adrenaline that comes with a brand new piece of equipment.
Note: this review contains full HD images best viewed on a high resolution desktop screen, to view in HD click on each image.
Announced back in January 2016 , the D5 is Nikon’s flagship DSLR and it was the first camera to feature Nikon’s new Multi-CAM 20K AF system. Prior to the D5, high-end Nikon DSLR’s were fitted with the decade-old Mulit-CAM 3500 AF module which was first introduced in 2007, with the Nikon D3. I owned a Nikon D3s for a brief period in 2011. Back then, my conclusion was that while the Nikon system was a bit more consistent than the then Canon EOS-1D Mark IV in terms of AF, it struggled to keep up with challenging BIF. The servo drive in the old Nikon lenses was just too slow for serious BIF. With the EOS-1D X and 1D X Mark II, Canon made a number of improvements in the AF department, further widening the gap with Nikon which was still stuck with the old system.
This all changed with the introduction of the D5 and Multi-Cam 20K AF system that can be found in the D500, D850 as well as the D5. Nikon’s new AF system is not simply an evolution of the same older AF systems, such as it was with EOS-1 D series cameras. The new system tripled the number of focus sensors (153 vs. 51) offering a very dense array of sensors. By 2017 there were a few credible reports by respected bird photographers claiming the Nikon AF system performing noticeably better than the Canon system when shooting BIF. Cross comparing results for such subject as BIF is very difficult since the skill and the experience of the photographer is the most important factor in the output.
When I first tried a Nikon D5 attached to a Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL in Bolsa Chica, in southern CA, I did not notice a significant difference. It seemed like a huge step up from the previous generations of Nikon cameras but not much better than Canon’s flagship EOS-1D X Mark II which I was using at the time. Please refer to my EOS-1D X MKII review here. During my shoot, I set up the camera the same way I had always set up my Canon cameras which produced the best results for that system. In early 2018, a fellow bird photographer convinced me to try the Nikon system again but with a different AF setting. This time I got to try the D850 which is a slower camera than the D5 but even when shooting at a modest 7fps (the loaner did not have the Nikon grip) I was impressed with the higher keeper ratio when photographing challenging subjects… Fast forward to present day and I am publishing my first review of a Nikon pro body for bird photography.
Build quality and handling
The build quality of the Nikon D5 is very high as expected, Nikon have spared no expense here making this body from a single piece of magnesium coated with a tough weather-proof rubber skin. The large grip and large buttons makes it easy to operate the D5 in cold temperatures and when wearing thick gloves. Overall, the build quality is the same level as the Canon 1D series, the best in the industry. The images below show the D5 side-by-side next the gripped Nikon D850 and the smaller D500. The D5 is actually smaller and lighter than the D850 with the optional grip attached (required to achieve 9 fps continuous shooting).
All three cameras have a 3.2″ high resolution touch screen on the rear. The D850 and D500 both have articulating screens which is a nice feature but I wouldn’t want one in a D5 since it will be the weakest point and compromise its durability. I hand hold my rig at all times so I almost never use live view any way, except for when I am testing my cameras. From the three, the D850 has the most comprehensive “touch” feature: most of the shooting and review screens use the touch feature while in the D5 it is much more limited. Nikon could easily fix that in a firmware update. Having said that, Nikon D5 is a step up from the EOS-1D X MKII in this regard, which despite having the touch hardware, does not use touch function for anything besides live view focusing!
The menu system is almost identical between the three cameras. One nice feature of the three Nikon bodies shown above is back-lit buttons that make it easier to work in dim conditions. the D5 numeric LCD’s (top and rear) both have a blue back light as opposed to the green in D850 and D500.
The D5 can be ordered with either dual CF (which is completely obsolete in 2019) or dual XQD card interface. The XQD interface is based on the faster PCI-E interface with continuous write speed >400MB/sec. and allows for up to 512GB (2 x 256 GB XQD cards) of in-camera storage. Having to deal with only one type of memory card and reader simplifies traveling and the workflow. With the XQD card, the camera can shoot RAW at 12 fps indefinitely. I use Sony XQD cards.
My only gripe with D5’s ergonomic is the placement of the AF toggle switch (seen below in the lower right corner by the FX badge) and the mode selector. I always shoot in continuous AF (AF-C) but I some times need to change the AF pattern on the fly and while hand holding my big lens, the AF-S 600mm F/4 E FL. This impossible to do with Nikon cameras. To get around this, I have assigned the programmable buttons on the front of the camera to toggle the active AF pattern. The D5 has plenty of programmable buttons.
I have programmed the button closest to my index finger to toggle the AF pattern. This is very handy when you want to switch quickly between Grp/dynamic AF pattern to a single point for added precision
The view finder is one of the most critical parts of the camera body for me. I wear glasses and I find Nikon’s eye piece more comfortable than Canon’s. Because the eyepiece is elevated I can see the entire view finder area. The D5 has a very large bright finder, when working with other cameras and then switching to the D5 it is hard not to appreciate this finder. Nikon’s D500 finder in comparison feels a bit dark and cramped. It’s fun to just watch birds and wildlife through D5’s finder. Compared to he EOS-1D X Mark II, the finders are probably similar in size but because of Nikon’s better eyepiece design folks who wear glasses like myself will find the D5 finder larger.
Do note that I am very critical when it comes to image quality. I use my 32″ 4K reference NEC monitor to edit and evaluate my images. I mostly display my images on the same monitor or on a 65″ 4K TV. If I print anything it must be large. I like my RAW files to be tack sharp when I view them at 100% on my high-resolution monitor.
Overall the image quality of the Nikon D5 is exactly what you would expect from a $6K+ flag ship body. The files are crisp and clean at 100%. Having said that the output quality of any camera is a strong function of the RAW conversion software and parameters used in the conversion. I have found that I get the best results form Phase One’s Capture One Pro (C1P) software. The colors are accurate right out of the box and the files look sharp without looking over-sharpened or grainy. The details of my process are explained in my C1P guide. This is in contrast with the Canon system where the Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) gave the best results by using Canon’s own propitiatory RAW demoniac and sharpening algorithms. Nikon also provide their own Capture NX-D software, but unfortunately it is quite disappointing to use. On my Intel Core i9 12-core PC loaded with RAM and the fastest PCI-E NVMe SSD, it takes tens of seconds to render thumbnails in a folder, open an image, make changes, view the changes and save it. Nothing is realtime and there are significant delays. The same machine slices through thousands of NEF files in C1P like a sharp knife slicing soft cheese. The Nikon Capture software is junk IMO-Don’t bother installing.
Compared to Canon’s EOS-1D x Mark II and Canon’s excellent DPP 4.8 software the output from the Nikon D5 and C1P is quite similar. At very high ISO’s (above 4000) Nikon is a bit better, on the other hand the D5 appears to have a stronger optical low-pass filter on its sensor compared to the Canon 1D series. As a result, a stronger RAW sharpening in C1P is required to give the same crisp look as the 1D when viewing RAW’s at 100%. The strong optical low pass filter is something I remember having seen on the older D3 and D4 series cameras as well, it attenuates the single pixel detail to some degree to prevent moire. I wish Nikon had deleted the low pass filter in D5 as they did in the D850, nevertheless after processing D5 files, the results looks great. There are many full HD sample images provided in this review.
Overall the image quality is not a deciding factor between Canon’s and Nikon’s flagship bodies and definitely not a reason to switch systems.
Below are some still life samples taken with the D5 and the 500PF on tripod with manual focus and remote release.
As you can see above the D5 does a great job of maintaining fine details up to ISO-3200. At ISO-6400 there is a slight but visible loss of detail. Overall I feel comfortable using my D5 up to ISO 4-6K depending on the scene and the subject which makes the D5 the absolute king of high ISO/low light.
Field image quality of the D5 is excellent and leaves little to be desired as shown in the examples below.
100% crop from RAW
In low light, the soft and rust-color plumage of the juvenile female northern harrier were rendered beautifully with no visible grain or color shift typically seen in high ISO files.
One thing to note is that in order to produce a high image quality with outstanding details with the D5 (or any other 20-mega pixel FF camera) you need to get close to your subject. You don’t want to crop the files more than 50%. This might be challenging for small and skittish birds . A 50% crop of a Nikon D850 image on the other hand contains more pixels than the full frame D5 image, making the D850 (or D500) more suitable for photographing small/skittish birds from a distance.
Below you can see a comparison between the 20 mega-pixel D5 and the 47.5 mega-pixel D850. As you can see the D850 delivers a higher resolution image with more fine details thanks to its massive pixel count. At ISO’s above 1600 or in low light, however the noise starts to affect the detail in the D850 image degrading it much more than the D5. In most but special circumstances, I don’t find the files from my D850 to be great above ISO 1600. Of course I’d prefer the resolution of the D850 but with the low light performance and the speed of the D5, but that’s not possible.
Note all images below are processed with Capture One Pro.
Auto Focus for BIF
So far we have learned that the D5 checks the boxes next to excellent build quality, handling and image quality but so does Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark II. What really differentiates these two bodies is the AF performance.
Fundamental differences in AF systems
On paper the EOS-1D X Mark II’s AF array includes 61 AF sensors. 41 sensors are cross-type when using a f/4 super-telephoto lenses. This number reduces to 21 when attaching a 1.4X TC or a 2X TC to the f/4 super-telephoto lens. The Nikon Multi-CAM 20K features a much denser array of 153 AF sensors, roughly 2.5X more than the EOS-1D X Mark II. 55 sensors can be selected by the user, 63 sensors are cross type when using f/4 FL series super-telephoto lenses, this number reduces to 45 when attaching the 1.4X TC to the f/4 super-telephoto lens. So on paper Nikon’s AF grid is much denser than Canon’s flagship AF system. The denser array increases the chances of one or more sensors falling on a contrasty spot on the subject when tracking BIF hand held with a big lens. Note that the AF sampling area is not exactly as large as what is shown in the diagram below.
The other major difference between the Canon and Nikon AF is that Nikon gives priority to focusing on the closest subject when tracking, as opposed to trying to be smart and “predict” the subject’s flight path, something that cannot be done for such erratic subject as BIF. A desirable BIF image is usually made with the bird flying against a colorful varied background, far from the background but close to the photographer. This falls into Nikon’s closest subject priority scenario. As a result the Nikon AF system is more stable than Canon’s when tracking BIF against color. To put it simply, it doesn’t constantly try ot refocus.
Servo drive speed
The AF drive speed is equally important and was the Achilles heel for the older Nikon bodies. In practice the, D5’s AF is rapid when using with f/4 FL series super-telephoto lenses such as the 600mm f/4 E FL or such lens attached to the TC14E-III. Again it’s difficult to measure a difference between the D5 and the EOS-1D X Mark II here, both can drive the attached super-telephoto lenses strongly and almost instantly. Even when shooting with a lens + TC combination with a maximum aperture of f/8 , the focus drive speed feels equal between the two. Example: The EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II + 2X TC III attached to the Canon 1D X MKII and the 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III attached to the D5, So again nothing to choose between the two in terms of AF servo drive speed.
What is different between the two cameras, is how each camera can hold focus and track the BIF as the photographer pans with the subject. The Canon AF often does not “see” the subject until it is at least as large as the center metering circle in the finder. Once locked, the camera can lose focus instantly if the subject drifts away from the center of the frame and sometimes even if it is dead centered in the finder.
The Canon AF is a bit “nervous” constantly looking to focus on something new. In order to get the results one expects from 20 grand worth of Canon equipment, the combination of the correct AF settings, specific AF techniques (such as bumping and late acquisition) and perfecting hand holding skills with long lenses are ALL required, as explained in detail in my BIF guide. Without these techniques, one can literally end up empty handed after an active shooting session, if tack sharp files of a challenging subject are desired. There are some situations where the Canon AF simply cannot lock and then keep up with the subject. The Nikon on the other hand can pick up the subject much earlier and when it is smaller in the frame. It will stay locked on the subject as it flies across a varied background coming closer towards the photographer.
Since one can shoot with only one camera at a time only, I relied on my past and present experience shooting similar subjects in order to compare the two systems. I have been shooting in the same location, at the same time of the year, with the same light, from the same spot so the field parameters were as close as possible. I knew which kinds of shots the Canon would likely nail and which ones it would likely miss. So I aimed the combination of the Nikon D5, 600 f/4 E FL and the 500 f/5.6 PF at the same subject.
I shot a variety of other subjects with the D5 including harriers, kites, hawks, falcons and shorebirds, in all of these cases the AF delivered the great confidence and reliability. In fact in many of these cases even the D850 AF performed better than what the EOS-1D X Mark II would have delivered, again from many years of experience shooting these subjects at these locations.
The D5 AF had great success locking on these fast shore birds in poor light conditions. The semipalmated plover in particular is a tough subject to get in flight.
AF at f/8
The D5 can maintain most of its focus performance with lens+TC combination with a maximum aperture of f/8 such as the popular AF-S 500 f/5.6 PF VR and the TC14E-III. This combination is fast enough on the D5 to be used even in low light as seen by the first example below.
This image was taken when it was literally dark. I had to raise the exposure in post but the colors held up well. There is no color distortion as a result of high ISO.
I spent two days shooting peregrine falcons in low light (lowest ISO I used was 1600 with most shots at ISO 2500 or ISO 3200). I had no doubt in my mind that the Nikon could nail most of the shots that the Canon would simply miss. Do note that no camera in the world, not even the D5 can deliver 100% hit rate when it comes to shooting a challenging subject as a peregrine falcon in low light, but the keeper ratio was higher with the Nikon. Unfortunately the activity was much lower than the time when I shot in the same location with EOS-1D X MK II in 2016, in fact it was the lowest I had seen, but the camera made the most out of the few opportunities it had.
Another subject I photographed extensively with the D5 was the northern harrier . The harrier are more skittish and more difficult to approach but once you are close enough the results are spectacular. The image shown below is a good example of the tracking capability of the D5 against a very busy background and foreground, both full of distractions for the AF to lock on.
The small raptors such as the white-tailed kites are the most challenging for a 20-mega pixel FF image. Getting close is really important here, but if you are able to get close again the results will be more than satisfactory, especially if you are after interaction frames .
How does D5’s AF compare against the D850 and the D500? This is the question I hear often. The D5’s AF is simply superior to that of the D850 and the D500. The servo drive is faster and the camera has less hesitation to initially grab focus on BIF. It is also less likely to lose focus once it has acquired it. Shooting white-tailed kites and harriers side-by-side with the D500, there is no question the D5 AF can stay locked for longer periods of time. I found that on a few occasions, the D500 lost focus on the subject and I had to re-acquire. This happened when the raptor’s profile suddenly changed (e.g. from banking to gliding with flat wings). On these occasions the D500 tends to lose focus while the D5 stays solidly locked. I noted a similar difference between the D850 and the D5. I am not sure if this is due to D5’s higher processing power or better calibration of its AF sensor and sub-mirror assembly. The D5 is also a faster camera than both D850 and D500, it just keeps shooting with no delay. The D850 on the other hand, tends to run out of buffer in intense action situations, which will slow down the AF too. The D500 frame rate can also drop in low light or when tracking complex subjects. Keep in mind in order to experience and take advantage of D5’s superior AF and take it to the next level, one needs to be on top of their BIF skills. Only a highly skilled competent driver can drive a hardcore race car at the limit. When shooting trivial subjects (e.g. seagull or pelican gilding against the ocean) all three cameras will perform similarly.
When maximum aperture is F/8 the difference between the D5 and the D850/D500 becomes night and day. The latter bodies become useless for BIF against varied BG’s while the D5 is still quite capable. This situation is somewhat less of an issue for the Nikon system as opposed to Canon since both D850 and the D500 can be used in place of the 2X TC in Canon’s system.
So there you have it. The D5 is better.
Having said that the difference between D5 and the D850/D500 is nowhere as striking as the difference between the EOS-1D X MKII and the lower cameras in Canon’s world. For challenging BIF, pretty much anything below an EOS-1D X (MKII) was inadequate . Both D850 and D500 on the other hand, are strong performers when it comes to BIF. They are both capable of capturing tack sharp flight shots with great consistency.
Summary and conclusion
The Nikon D5 is not for everyone, it is the camera aimed at working pros and those who would like to shoot high intensity action and capture many high quality images of challenging, dynamic subjects. It does that task perfectly and leaves little to be desired. At $5300 with the recent price drop, the Nikon D5 is still an expensive DSLR, but for the photographers who can afford the price, nothing else can quite deliver the same results. Nikon recently announced the development of D5’s successor, the D6. It would be interesting to see what new features/improvements the new camera will bring to the market.
+ simply the best in class AF for birds in flight I have ever used. Rapid AF with consistent, reliable tracking against complex backgrounds.
+ rapid operation, 12 fps with practically unlimited buffer (XQD)
+large bright finder, friendly to those with glasses.
+ dual XQD card slots, does not mix two types of storage media.
+Clean files at high ISO, excellent dynamic range.
+excellent ergonomics, touch screen, back-lit buttons.
+ Large capacity battery.
-Contrast detect AF in live view mode is obsolete and useless.
-The micro-detail in RAW files could be better, especially given that the camera is “only” 20 mega pixels.
-Nikon’s provided RAW conversion software is very poor to put it mildly.
-no integrated WiFi