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Nikon’s new DSLRs: something old, something new

The D5 and D500 are the product of two Nikons

Nikon just launched two DSLRs. They’re both big black cameras with red trim, a ton of buttons, and a Nikon logo on the top. Surprise!

But there’s more to the two cameras, the D5 and the D500, than you might think. The former is a technological tour-de-force likely to increase Nikon’s grip on professional markets; the other is a full-fledged attempt to make the DSLR relevant in the connected age.

Nikon D5 and D500 photos

Let’s start with the D5. It’s the follow-up to 2012’s D4 and 2014’s D4S, which means it’s a full-frame camera designed primarily for sports and reportage with a focus on speed and low-light performance. The sensor is now 20.8 megapixels — up from 16.2 — and the ISO goes all the way up to 102,400, with the extended range clocking in at an absurdly high 3,280,000.

The D5 is an impressive yet iterative update

There’s a new autofocus system with 153 points, the central of which can work in low light down to -4EV. You can shoot up to 12 frames a second with continuous autofocus, or 14 frames a second without in mirror-lockup mode. The D5 also uses a new Nikon image processor, the Expeed 5.

As for flashier features, the D5 is Nikon’s first DSLR to shoot 4K video. It’s also the first high-end Nikon with a touchscreen. You can even pinch and zoom in on the 3.2-inch display, though there’s no tap-to-focus.

All of this is to say that the D5 is an impressive yet iterative update. There’s no doubt it’ll be a great camera — a large proportion of the best sports photography you’ve seen in the past few years will have been shot on a D4 — and that a whole lot of pros will snap it up as soon as they can. But it won’t do anything to change those pros’ workflows; it’s a better version of what’s come before.

Nikon D5 and D500 photos

You could say that about the D500, Nikon’s second DSLR of CES, but you wouldn't be telling the whole story. The D500 is important for two reasons: the long-awaited follow-up to the D300s is a sign that Nikon is serious about the smaller APS-C format, and it’s also a sign that the company recognizes the relevance of smartphones to photographers.

Apart from its smaller 20.9-megapixel sensor, the D500 is like a D5 in miniature. It has a similar button-and-joystick layout, a large and bright viewfinder, the same touchscreen panel (tilting, in this case), an autofocus system that uses the same technology, and the new Expeed 5 processor. Maximum shooting speed is a little slower at 10 frames per second, and the expanded ISO range "only" goes up to a still-ridiculous 1,640,000.

Who would want a pro-level APS-C camera when Nikon offers full-frame models for around the same price? Well, there’s no getting around the fact that full-frame lenses are hefty in size and cost, and the gap in absolute image quality isn’t what it once was. And although mirrorless cameras are yet to truly shake up the DSLR market, Nikon can defend against them by offering a reasonable balance of performance and size in the APS-C format.

But more importantly, the D500 is the first move in Nikon’s play for the enthusiast photographer with a smartphone — i.e. basically every enthusiast photographer. Its new SnapBridge system uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy to provide a seamless, always-on connection with your mobile device, so you can just shoot and check the photos later without having to worry about explicitly transferring them. It should, for example, make it a lot easier for photographers to use tablets in their workflow.

Nikon D5 and D500 photos

At least in theory. Camera companies have been adding Wi-Fi functionality to their products for years, and almost all of them have the same problems: pairing to phones is too fiddly, and the apps usually just suck. Nikon should have solved the first issue, at least, but the company’s ability to develop actual, usable software will also be critical.

Unfortunately, Nikon wasn't showing off any of the connectivity software today, so it's hard to tell how well it will execute. "Our focus is to make software as integral to our innovation roadmap as hardware," said corporate VP Tadashi Nakayama on stage today. That's a sentiment I've wished for camera makers to express for years, and those years have only made me less and less confident that they're capable of pulling it off.

But if Nikon does get it right, the D500 could be a hugely important camera for the company, because today’s announcements showed two Nikons. The first is the conservative yet effective behemoth that knows how to build really good DSLRs for specific audiences; the second is a more realistic, humble company that understands its place in the world and wants to move with the times. Of all the camera makers, Nikon has long been the least likely to show the latter qualities — here’s hoping CES 2016, the D500, and the innovative KeyMission 360 are the first signs of change.

See all of our CES 2016 news right here!

Nikon D5 and D500 photos