We’ve written a lot about the rise of mirrorless cameras. The Outside staff uses them frequently because they’re small and powerful—but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up on DSLRs. Case in point: the Nikon D5. The company’s new flagship shooter is built like a tank, fires like a machine gun, has whip-fast autofocus, and goes up to a mind-blowing ISO 3.3 million. I’ve spent the past couple months testing one and think it’s just about the best camera for people who like to shoot action sports and find themselves in low-light situations.
The D5, with its 153-point image detection system, makes tracking your subject easier than ever. Put another way, the system helps the camera stay locked on a subject as it moves across the frame. I shot cyclocross riders training and was amazed at how easy it was to track them as they wove in and out of obstacles. The camera also balances light and shadow with 180,000-pixel, three-dimensional metering. That means if your subject is moving from light into shadow, even at high speed, the camera can adjust and nail the exposure. Once you’re locked on, the D5 fires up to 12 frames per second—plenty fast for capturing a skier hucking a cliff or cyclists flying by—and doesn’t fill the buffer until you’ve shot 200 images.
Yes, the D5 is a large camera. It weighs a hefty 3.1 pounds, versus the smaller D500, which comes in at just over 1.6 pounds. That’s a lot of weight to haul around for one body, but in return you get great hand feel and balance. What does that mean? Because it’s so large, the camera features a giant pistol grip for both horizontal and vertical shooting, making it easy and intuitive to hold. The vertical pistol grip features another shutter button and adjustment dial for easier shooting, and both grips help balance big telephoto lenses that want to pull the camera out of your hands. Like the D500, the D5 is weather-sealed, so you can shoot in the snow or a rainstorm, and its magnesium alloy case will put up with a decade of regular abuse and even the occasional fall.
The D5 made headlines because it goes up to an ISO of 102,400 and is expandable up to ISO 3.3 million. Three million is a big number, but in tests it’s been proven that you never really want to go that high because the images get so grainy. The camera does, however, excel in low-light situations—noticeably better than the D500. This is one of its most important selling points.
The most immediate downside is that the D5 costs $6,500—more than three times the D500. The D5 is faster—12 frames per second versus 10—and the giant 36-by-24-millimeter FX-format sensor in the D5 is better in low light. But for most amateur photographers, those differences are pretty subtle. The D500 gets the same 153-point image detection system as the D5, as well as the 180,000 pixel, three-dimensional metering system.
Do more frames per second and better low-light capabilities make up for a $4,500 difference in cost? Only you know if those things really matter to you.
If you shoot skiing and mountain biking or other high-velocity sports for a living, then you want this camera. It has the power and features to nail the action, it works especially well with telephoto lenses, and you’ll notice a difference over a slower camera like the D500. Plus, you get a camera that does really, really well in low light.
But if you’re just shooting action occasionally and casually and want a camera for portraits that’s lighter and less expensive, I’d point you to something like the D500 instead.