Judgment Day

Terminator: Why do you cry?
John Connor: You mean people?
Terminator: Yes.
John Connor: I don’t know. We just cry. You know, when it hurts.
Terminator: Pain causes it?
John Connor: No, it’s when there’s nothing wrong with you, but you hurt anyway.

Somehow that last line came to mind when thinking about the question all of you have been asking me lately: “so, is the D500 good enough to buy right away, or do I wait?”

There’s nothing wrong with the D500, but it hurts me anyway. 

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first: the D500 is exactly what we wanted it to be, a mini-D5 at an affordable price. It clearly restores “pro” to the DX lineup, and it does so in the best possible way. As the D300 was a mini-D3, the D500 has replicated that winning formula near perfectly.

Autofocus? Spectacular. Frame rate? Great. Buffer performance? Best ever in DX and near best ever, period. Pro feature set? Yep. Lots of control, info? Ditto. Better hand position than before? Yes. 4K video? Yes, though with a crop.

You can just keep going down any feature or performance list and find the same thing over and over: top of the DX line; equal or near equal to the top of the FX line. 

That Nikon matched up a new 20mp sensor for DX to the 20mp of the D5’s FX seems interesting, too. The easy route would have been to just made the sensor 24mp, because the base it’s built on was originally 24mp. Nikon went to some extra effort and cost to get the sensor better matched as a mini-D5 than it probably had to. 

I even like the SnapBridge and IPTC capabilities, though both are broken at the moment due to Nikon’s terrible software practices. 

And that’s where the crying starts to come in. 

The shame is that the D500 feels under tested and slightly unfinished. I’m fairly convinced that there’s a power demand issue in the camera that needs to be adjusted (hopefully through firmware changes). We know of the occasional lockups and can now reproduce one over and over if Nikon engineers would only care to look.

So what the D500 experience is today is this: wow, great camera. Oh wait, what’s this annoyance? 

Most of the time—and with some careful adjustments on your part—there’s a lot of “wow, great camera” and very rare “what’s this annoyance?” Since I know you won’t let me go on without explaining that conditional clause:

  • Use only EN-EL15 batteries marked Li-Ion20
  • Use only XQD cards

Those two things alone will reduce the annoyances to a very low level. You’re still going to eventually hit a camera lockup condition or have a temporary card error as far as I can tell, but it’ll be rare. It seems clear that there will be a firmware update on this camera, and one that fixes a number of problems, some of which we probably haven’t discovered yet.

So do I recommend you pop for a D500 or wait?

Have you ever beta tested a product?

Because that’s essentially what it feels we’re doing for Nikon here. That I and many, many others could discover multiple issues in hours of getting the camera simply suggests that the Nikon D500 didn’t go through much, if any, real world testing. Frankly, it didn’t seem to get enough manufacturer testing, either. Or maybe Nikon knew about these issues and shipped anyway. 

None of the D500’s issues are a quality defect like Nikon’s had troubles with lately (e.g. shutters that shed, autofocus modules that don’t align correctly, camera mirror boxes that get into the light path). They all appear to me to be the types of last minute things that come up with a new product and should have been caught in routine testing. 

So, here’s my advice: if you want the best crop sensor camera on the market, sure, buy the D500. You’ll be making an assumption that Nikon will get around to fixing the things we’ve been finding wrong with the camera. In computer jargon, first shipment had a lot of unresolved bugs. 

The problem, of course, is that Nikon is just piling up case after case of issues, which is making its user base look more closely at new products to see if they might be problematic. Nikon has essentially built into their audience a “wait until they fix the problems found with the first batch” delay. And it’s becoming an automatic delay. Heaven knows what the demand for the D500 would be if Nikon hadn’t gotten themselves into that waiting pattern with their customers. 

Six months from now it’s going to be perfectly safe to buy a D500. Maybe sooner. Hard to say exactly since Nikon seems to be in denial-of-problems mode at the moment. 

None of the problems I’ve verified are likely to make you miss a critical image. Though I suppose they might if you trigger one and then have to clear the error and that takes you too long and you miss the next moment. 

Here’s my bottom line: the D500 leaves the impression of being a great product, a seminal product, a perfect crop sensor top body for the times, everything the DX crowd wanted in a D300 followup, and then some. Yet every once in awhile, in its current state, it will annoy you. 

You asked for my judgment on the D500. That’s where it currently stands.

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