Nikon D500 for Underwater Photography – A Mid-Term Review… How time flies – just over two years ago I wrote a first impressions review of my newly acquired Nikon D500.
And in it I waxed lyrically about what the new “king of DX (APS-C) photography” could do.
Two years is a long time in digital photography and a lot has happened. Top of the list being that it seems like the glory days of DSLR’s are probably coming to an end. And the changing of the guard to mirrorless is well under way.
Both Nikon and Canon responded to the Sony juggernaut late last year with the Z6/7 and EOS R full-frame mirrorless cameras. And Panasonic have just released their 24MP and 47MP offerings the S1 and S1R.
Plus, in August 2017 Nikon released the D850. Which as respected commentator Thom Hogan recently stated “remains the best DSLR you can buy”.
I personally bought a D850 for my other digital obsession – landscape photography… And I have been highly impressed with its dynamic range and overall functionality. So much so that the thought of (yet another…) expensive underwater photography upgrade did cross my mind a time or two!
But after considering all the pros and cons of that D850 upgrade, together with going full-frame mirrorless for underwater photography, I have reached the firm conclusion that for the next couple of years what I have with the D500 will meet or exceed virtually all my needs. Here’s why…
Nikon D500 for Underwater Photography – Auto-Focus
The auto-focus in the D500 is the same Multi-CAM 20K system as Nikon’s D5 top of the range flagship. And comes complete with the same dedicated AF CPU.
Which means that the auto-focus is very fast and only the D5, the D500 and the D850 DSLR’s have that set-up.
Nikon’s typical life-cycle for it’s professional and “prosumer” cameras is usually 4 years.
They often do some kind of “S” upgrade after two years to stimulate more sales. But with the both the D5 and D500 it looks like that will not happen this time around. Probably because they are so busy with the new full-frame mirrorless cameras.
Which means that what we have with the D500 is what we will have for the rest of its life-cycle. And why I decided to do this “mid-term” review… I have used the D500 exclusively on numerous “big animal” trips over the last two years. And the Multi-CAM 20K auto-focus system is as impressive now as it was when I first bought it.
Nikon D500 Auto-Focus Sensor Array
What is so special about the D500’s auto-focus is that the Multi-CAM 20K system is used on Nikon’s smaller DX sensor. Whereas with the D5 and D850 it is used on the larger FX full-frame sensors.
The 20k system has 153 phase detection sensors. So on the D500’s much more of the DX sensor is covered.
But on the FX cameras those same 153 phase detection sensors cover a much smaller area.
Those 153 sensors give the D500 a very significant advantage when photographing fast moving action.
It means you can use AF-On to lock the focus point on the eye. Then quickly recompose your image while allowing the AF system to keep that eye razor sharp!
At the time of writing this review it is over two years since Nikon released the Multi-CAM 20K system.
But it remains widely regarded as the best they have ever produced and… possibly the best any manufacturer has made. On the D500 it gives you a huge advantage!
Nikon D500 for Underwater Photography – Nauticam Housing
The housing I use with the D500 is my fourth from Nauticam and overall, I am very pleased with it. It works well, has been completely reliable and apart from fading button markers still looks good despite all it has been through.
It was the first housing I have ever had with a vacuum fitting and I cannot imagine ever buying a new housing without one. The sense of reassurance provided by that green light is simply amazing!
I use a 45-degree Nauticam viewfinder with the housing 90% of the time. Only switching to the 180-degree version when I am pretty sure I am going to have eyeball to eyeball encounters.
Nikon D500 for Underwater Photography – Lenses & Ports
When I moved back to the DX format with the D500 I planned on using a Tokina 10-17 fisheye zoom with a Zen 100mm dome. Plus a Tokina 11-20 rectilinear zoom with a Zen 230mm dome, for my wide-angle photography.
Then, out of the blue, Nikon released the 8-15mm fisheye zoom. Which, although considerably more expensive than the Tokina version, seemed to be of much higher optical quality.
Plus, Nauticam recommended that it performed best when used with their highly regarded 140mm dome port.
Combined, the 8-15mm (12-21mm on DX – but effectively 14-22mm because of vignetting) offered a high-quality, travel-friendly combo that matched the excellent auto-focus and high frame-rate capability of the D500.
So, I went ahead and made a further significant “investment…” Which was subsequently enhanced some time later when Nauticam released a zoom ring for the 8-15mm to be used with the Kenko 1.4 DGX TC and 40mm extension ring.
Thus, I now have the choice between a 14-22mm (effective) zoom. Or a 17-31mm zoom all combined in to a very travel-friendly package!
Nikon D500 for Underwater Photography – Lighting
Having the capability to focus fast and accurately and then shoot at 10 FPS for 200 shots at a time is perfect for whales, dolphins and whale sharks where you are snorkeling and using available light.
But what about balanced light photography with sharks, crocodiles and other potentially fast-moving creatures where fast focus and high frame rates are only as good as the recycle time of the strobes you are using?
Well… that has been a journey which required even more “investments” Underwater photography has never been a cheap thing to do, but it seems to have become much more so recently. Or is that just me chasing the next level?
Where I have landed is a two-stage approach and when I think I will need 10 FPS capability I settled on the Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes. Although now longer made, I managed to find two brand-new units which perform superbly and are powerful enough that at ¼ power provide enough light when the subject matter is close to the dome and recycle quick enough to allow 10 FPS shooting!
But, and it’s a big but – they are big, heavy and a pain to travel with…. The pain is worth it though as they are super reliable and very powerful plus are easy to use and adjust power settings on.
Where I think 5 FPS is enough, I use Ikelite DS160 strobes which at ¼ power also deliver enough light close to the dome and recycle quickly – but only for about 5-6 frames.
Finally, I use Ikelite’s domed diffusers which fit both the DS160’s and the YS-250’s and really make a difference.
Ikelite Manual Controllers
I personally find the power settings on the DS160’s really hard and awkward to use.
An issue I solved by using Ikelite’s manual power controllers.
These are also no longer made, but I found two second-hand units which I mount on the side of the Inon buoyancy arms I use.
The manual controllers allow very precise and easy to use control of the light from each strobe.
Nikon D500 for Underwater Photography – In The Water
I have now done numerous trips with the D500 and equipment described above. And I feel reasonably qualified to make the following observations and comments:
- The Multi-CAM 20K and dedicated AF CPU auto-focus system is simply phenomenal in my experience. It is incredibly fast, accurate, very reliable and has never let me down!
- The Nikon 8-15mm zoom is one hell of a lens – very sharp and optically greatly superior to the Tokina 10-17. And it works incredibly well with the Multi-CAM 20k auto-focus system on the D500.
- The Nauticam 140mm dome perfectly compliments both the Nikon 8-15mm and the NA-D500 housing. Providing great performance from a relatively small package.
- The Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes are really great. They are big and heavy, but when you need them, they deliver every time!
- The Ikelite DS160’s are also very good, but simply cannot do the heavy lifting that the YS-250’s can.
Nikon D500 Mid-Term Assessment
- Overall performance of Nikon D500 : A
- Nikon D500 auto-focus: A+
- Nikon 8-15mm zoom: A+
- Nauticam 140mm dome: A
- Nauticam NA-D500 housing: A
- Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes: A (A+ if they were lighter…)
- Ikelite DS160 strobes: B+ (Those power switches drive me crazy…)
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