CES 2016 saw the announcement of two important DSLRs from Nikon, including an update to its flagship line, as well as an almost mythical product many had given up hope of ever seeing: a true D300 replacement.
The newly announced D5 is Nikon’s top-of-the-line professional DSLR, with a 20.8MP full frame sensor capable of shooting at up to 12fps with AF and 14fps without (with the mirror locked up). The headline feature, though, is arguably the new 153 point AF system with 99 cross-sensors. AF tracking with this new system will also benefit from the doubling in resolution of the RGB metering sensor used for scene analysis, and the D5 is the first Nikon camera capable of 4K video.
The biggest news though may be the long-awaited replacement of the D300S. The 20.9MP APS-C D500 is Nikon’s ‘best enthusiast DX offering’, and the term ‘enthusiast’ might be an understatement. With continuous shooting speeds of 10 fps and a 200 shot buffer for Raw images, the camera is aimed squarely at action and fast-paced photographers who don’t mind the smaller sensor, or even benefit from its extra reach. It features the same 153-point AF system and 180k-pixel RGB metering sensor of the D5, along with the EXPEED 5 processor. It can also capture 4K/UHD video and also features ‘SnapBridge’, a constant connection to a smartphone using Bluetooth.
To begin with the AF module, which is shared between both the D5 and D500. Here is the Multi-Cam 20K in all its glory. It’s a major step up from the Multi-Cam 3500FX module, variants of which were found in the D4s, D810, and D750. Up from 51 total AF points with 15 central cross-sensors, the module in the D5 and D500 offers 153 phase-detect points with 99 cross-sensors spread across much of the frame. The improvements don’t stop there though: the module has its own dedicated processor, to deal with the computationally intensive information coming from 153 AF points cross-referenced with the scene analysis system (more on that later). The center AF point is now sensitive down to -4 EV. All 152 other points are sensitive down to -3 EV, much like the D750 and D7200, although now with an even wider spread of points.
If Nikon’s claims are true, we can expect formidable AF performance in low light from the D5 and D500 – possibly the best from any DSLR. Although we’ve previously found Sony’s Alpha 7S to focus in at nearly -5 EV, its contrast-detect AF, and associated hunting, made it quite slow in practice. -4 EV phase-detect AF on a DSLR should be seriously impressive because it will likely be far more decisive than mirrorless, contrast-based systems. Additionally, cross-type sensors tend to perform better in low light and with low contrast subjects: cross-sensors are able to make focus measurements from subjects containing both horizontal and vertical detail (or, at least, detail that has either a horizontal or vertical component to it). In low light or backlit situations, where lowered contrast already makes it difficult to distinguish subject detail, sensors looking along multiple axes for detail to ‘lock on’ to simply have a higher chance of success than sensors that can only ‘see’ detail with a, say, horizontal component.