Nikon D5 Review

April 18, 2016 | Amy Davies |


The D5 is Nikon's latest flagship professional DSLR, sitting right at the top of its line-up and representing an upgrade from 2014's D4S. It's no surprise to see Nikon announcing a new camera in this year with big sporting tournaments, especially the Olympics, on the horizon.

Nikon has kept more or the less the same body design for the D5 as its predecessor, but there's been some significant improvements under the bonnet which should make this a very, very appealing camera for professional photographers - especially those in the news and sports camp.

There's been an increase in resolution, up from the 16 million pixels of the D4S, the Nikon D5 sports a 20.8 million pixel FX-format (full-frame or 35mm) CMOS sensor. Although it's true that there are sensors with much higher pixel counts on the market (Nikon's own D810 has 36 million), it's likely that professionals will welcome this relatively modest increase. A huge resolution equates to huge file sizes, which can be a drawback to news and sports photographers working in the field, while an increased resolution is likely to be detrimental to low light noise performance.

Speaking of which, Nikon's incredibly clever engineers have worked some magic when it comes to the ISO range of the D5. The standard range of the camera is ISO 100 - 102,400, up by two stops when compared to the D4S which had a native range of ISO 100 - 25,600. The big headlines however were generated by the expansion settings which Nikon offers - the top speed being an incredible, and frankly unbelievable sounding, 3,280,000.

There's also a new 153-point AF system, which includes 99 cross-type points which are more sensitive. The D4S by contrast had 51 AF points. Nikon has included an EXPEED 5 processing engine, which boosts the frame rate of the camera up to 12fps (from 11fps with the D4S) - further good news is that there is a burst depth of up to 200 raw files when writing to an XQD card. AF tracking has also been improved, along with a new ASIC unit which has been included to provide high performance with autofocus.

The Nikon D5 will be available in two variants, one which features double CF card slots, and one which features XQD slots. Although many professional photographers may have lots of legacy CF cards, if they want to take advantage of the fast speeds on offer from the D5, they will need the XQD version. For the first year of sales, Nikon will be shipping the D5 with a free XQD card and reader.

On the back of the Nikon D5 there's a 3.2-inch, 2359k-dot TFT screen which, in a reasonably big difference from the D4S (and an interesting step for pro-level cameras), is touch-sensitive. 

Finally, another new improvement for the D5 is the addition of 4K video recording. It is one of only two Nikon DSLRs to offer such functionality - the other being the Nikon D500. However, 4K video recording is limited to recording just three minutes. In can record full HD video at 1080p as well.

The Nikon D5 DSLR is available for a suggested retail price of £5,199.99/€6,989.00/$6,499.95 in two different versions, with either dual XQD card slots or dual CF card slots.

Ease of Use

Nikon knows that many potential D5 owners will be current D4S owners, and it seems likely that for this reason, Nikon has kept roughly the same body size, shape and layout. So, if you're a professional who has been using the D4S for the past couple of years, you don't have to worry about getting used to a new way of working if you upgrade to the new model.

That said, if you look closely, you'll see that the grips on the front and back of the Nikon D5 have been reshaped ever so slightly to make the camera feel a little more comfortable in your hand if you're using it for long stretches of time. Considering the weight and size of the D5, it sits nicely in your hand, with a good placement of dials and buttons within easy reach or your forefingers and thumb. The eyepiece cup around the viewfinder is also a very slightly different shape, too.

Unlike cameras a little bit down Nikon's line-up, the D5 (like the D4S) has an inbuilt portrait format grip. There are two shutter release buttons - one on the landscape grip, another on the portrait grip. A small function button is found behind the vertical shutter release - you can assign it to a number of different functions, or you could match it to the ISO functionality of the button behind the landscape shutter release. There are also duplicate front and rear dials which correspond to the same dials around the landscape shutter release. There's also two AF-on buttons which are placed in easy reach of your thumb - you can use them for back-button focusing.

Nikon D5
Front of the Nikon D5

Like with the D4S, there are two textured small joysticks which you can use to select an AF point. You can also use them as AE Lock buttons. There are two so that again you can use either of them depending on which orientation you're holding the camera. It's an intuitive little joystick to use, and as it falls neatly under your thumb when holding the camera it's very quick to change the point you need. You'd have to give the joystick a reasonably hard push by accident to change a point when you didn't want to - and hold it down to move the point across further than one point. You also have the option to use an eight way controller just underneath the joystick to set your focus point, but it's pretty small and not that comfortable to use.

Underneath the 8-way pad is a lock button which allows you to lock the focus point on the one you have currently selected. This is useful if you don't want to accidentally change the focus point, either by accidentally touching the focusing joystick, or absent mindedly.

For the Nikon D5 there is another way to set the autofocus point - but only if you're shooting in Live View. You can now use the screen as it is touch sensitive. Simply switch the camera to shooting in Live View (there's a dedicated button near the screen) and you can tap on screen where you want the point to be. While it's true that the majority of photographers will be using the viewfinder to compose, using the screen is useful in certain applications, such as when shooting macro subjects.

The D5 has a new Multi-CAM 20K autofocus sensor module which features 153 focus points, however only 55 of the points are available for selection - the rest are used as supporting AF points. There are different AF modes to choose from. You can use either Single-point AF, 25-, 72- or 153-point dynamic area AF, 3D tracking, group-area AF or auto-area AF. To choose which mode to use, you press a button near the lens mount, and use the front scrolling dial to move through the different options. Hold down the same button and scroll the rear dial to choose between AF-S (single), and AF-C (continuous). An AF/MF switch around the AF mode selector button allows to switch quickly between autofocusing and manual focusing.

Nikon D5
Rear of the Nikon D5

Nikon seems to have improved continuous focusing over the D4S - which is more good news for sports and action photographers. Using the D5 in tricky lighting conditions and with a 300mm f/4 lens which is not known for its superlative continuous focusing performance, the D5 was able to keep up with moving figures extremely admirably. Furthermore, the increase in the buffer size (when using XQD cards) is  bound to impress professional sports photographers - anybody shooting athletics at the Olympics is going to have plenty of frames to choose from. As with the D4S, you can choose to shoot in “Raw S” to produce a smaller file than the full resolution gives which can extend your continuous shooting even further and make it easier (in other words, quicker) to transfer images.

Autofocusing is designed to work in conditions as dark as -4EV for the more sensitive cross-type sensors. This gives you great scope to work in a variety of lighting conditions, and the Nikon D5 really delivers well, locking onto subjects in dark conditions quickly and easily without hunting around - news and reportage photographers who are working with natural low light at nighttime should really appreciate this. In terms of low light there's a definite and noticeable improvement from the already extremely capable D4S.

Going back to the Live View button - this is encircled by a two-way Live View mode selector, in essence to give you the choice between movie live view and stills live view. You can choose “silent live view” from the main menu. Once the mirror is raised you won't hear a peep from the camera, with the picture taken in completely silence. However, if you choose to use this, you'll be barred from shooting in raw format and have the resolution restricted. However, the size you're left with is big enough for printing at small sizes, so news photographers may find it useful in certain situations where any kind of audible noise is severely restricted.

You can also use the standard Live View quiet mode if you want to shoot at higher resolutions, or in raw format. This will move the mirror out of the way, but you'll still have the sound of the shutter when you take a shot.

There's plenty of other buttons on the back, top and front of the Nikon D5, most of which will be familiar to current D4S users. However, for those who are moving to the D5 for the first time, we'll look at some of the highlights. To the right of the lens mount you'll see there's three function buttons - these can be customised to control different functions depending on your preference from the main menu.

Nikon D5
Top of the Nikon D5

On the top left of the camera is where you can change the shooting mode (P, A, S, M - unsurprisingly there's no auto on offer here), drive mode (Single, Continuous Low, Continuous High, Quiet, Timer, Mirror Up), bracketing mode, and metering mode.

Moving to the back of the Nikon D5, and towards the bottom of the camera you'll find you're able to change image quality settings and white balance. The buttons overall have been designed to give professional photographers quick access to almost every setting, and although it takes some time to get to know the layout and what every button does, once you do, it seems sensible and quick.

The screen on the back of the D5 is fixed, but there is touch sensitivity for the first time. It's also seen a bump in resolution - there's now 2359k dots, whereas the D4S had 921,000. The touch sensitivity isn't available for every facet of camera option, but it is a usable extra. You can use it to set autofocus point in Live View, but perhaps more appealing to professional photographers is the option to swipe through images and pinch to zoom - it makes checking that you've got the vital shot just that little bit quicker. It would perhaps have been nice if you could use the screen to select menu options, though.

There's now a wealth of movie shooting options available for the Nikon D5. There's not only 1080p (full HD) at a variety of frame rates (24p, 25p, 50p, 60p) along with some crop modes, but there is now 4K video recording. Nikon has restricted the D5's ability to record 4K to three minutes, which although will be a little disappointing for some, for others, it may be all you need.

As you would expect from a camera at this level, you are afforded manual control over video recording. When shooting at Full HD, you'll be able to shoot for as long as 29 minutes 59 seconds. Despite the fact that 4K has been included here, it feels more like a bonus for stills photographers who may want to shoot the odd video, rather than something which is designed to appeal especially to videographers, which makes sense given Nikon's heritage.

Nikon D5
Memory Card Slots

The D5's optical viewfinder gives 100% frame coverage and is bright and clear, giving an excellent view of the scene. If you wear glasses, you should also find this particular viewfinder works well. Just like the D4S, there's a Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark IX screen with AF area brackets - a framing grid can also be displayed if you like (from the custom menu). An additional bonus is the fact that the viewfinder eyepiece is fluorine coated, which means it repels dust, water droplets, oil, mud and other liquids - making it ideal when you need to shoot in tough conditions, such as pouring rain.

There continues to be no top-end professional DSLRs which offer Wi-Fi inbuilt into their body - which is a shame considering the price point. Wi-Fi connectivity would be very useful for news photographers who need to urgently file pictures, but it's been suggested that a Wi-Fi transmitter would struggle to work when placed inside the rugged metal body of something like the D5.

As with the D4S you can purchase a Wt-5 wireless transmitter separately - this is an expensive, yet perhaps vital purchase for any news photographer. It would be nice if the engineers at Nikon could think of a way around the Wi-Fi problem that doesn't include dishing out an extra £600 for a transmitter. In better nows however is that the camera's USB port is now USB 3.0, while the D4S has a slower USB 2.0 port, which makes transferring images across, or tethering, much quicker.

The Nikon D5 uses the same battery as the D4S - the EN-EL18a, which is good news for D4S owners who may have already purchased additional batteries that they can transfer across to new kit. A new EXPEED processing engine helps to boost an already impressive 3,020 shots up to a quoted 3,780 shots per charge for the D5. Needless to say, we didn't encounter any problem with dead batteries during our testing, but if you're a sports photographer shooting 12fps, you may want to make sure you keep a spare to hand.

Just like the D4S, the Nikon D5 is a very very capable camera, with a good degree of improvements from the predecessor. Autofocusing is quick in a wide range of conditions, seemingly no matter what lens is attached to it. Shot to shot times are also super quick, and there's near instant start up time and almost no shutter lag to boot.