I bought my Nikon D750 almost five years ago and switched from Canon to enter the full-frame photography world. Over that time I’ve been very satisfied with the camera and have amassed quite a collection of lenses for it. Outside of swapping some slightly better quality (and significantly more expensive) lenses into my lineup, I’ve got all of the areas covered –ultra wide, fixed primes, standard telephoto zooms, extreme telephoto zooms, macro, teleconverter, and even esoteric “artsy” lenses. My D750 performs great, with plenty of features, a rugged build, fast continuous shooting, and image quality that still keeps up seven years after its introduction.
But while it’s a great full-frame camera, there are a few things missing: faster continuous shooting and a deeper buffer to get more usable wildlife shots, better autofocus with more points and better subject tracking, and a higher resolution sensor with clearer detail so I can crop more in post. I’m not planning to get rid of my D750 any time soon, but have started looking at what I might do to augment it. A lot has happened in the last five years (e.g. mirrorless) so it felt like a good time to get an idea of what my options were.
The D850 was released in 2017 and slots in between the D750 and the professional D5. Its standout feature is its 46 MP sensor with plenty of room for cropping and incredible ISO performance from the low end to the high. It can go all the way down to ISO 64 for incredibly smooth images where most cameras can only go to ISO 100. It also includes the 153 point autofocus system from the Nikon D5, which is regarded as the best autofocus system in any DSLR. It shoots at up to 9 frames per second continuously, has a rugged build with plenty of buttons, an articulated LCD touchscreen, and illuminated controls. It’s the direction I’ll probably go eventually.
The problem is that it is really expensive. Three years after introduction, it’s still a $3,000 camera. In addition, the fantastic 9 frame per second continuous shooting speed is only available with the battery grip and special batteries, which cost an additional $1,000 if you buy all of the Nikon-branded parts. So now it’s a $4,000 camera. Yikes. The 46 MP sensor is also so high-resolution that many of my current lenses won’t actually show any additional detail over my D750 – I’d have to buy better, more expensive lenses to get the most out of it. It’s still an awesome camera, but maybe not just yet.
Nikon’s Z7 is one of its first entries into the full-frame mirrorless market that was created by Sony in 2013. Mirrorless cameras read the image directly off of the sensor and don’t have a mirror, glass prism, or optical viewfinder, which makes them smaller and lighter while allowing capabilities that DSLRs physically can’t have. These include instant exposure preview, super high continuous shooting up to 20 or 30 shots per second, silent image taking, video shooting that works like a cell phone, and tenacious subject tracking with the ability to focus on a person or animal’s eye.
The Z7 is part of Nikon’s trio of mirrorless full-frame cameras, and is essentially a mirrorless version of the D850. It costs the same too. The problem is that it just isn’t that good. Nikon’s only been in the mirrorless full-frame market for three years and it lags behind Sony and Canon, sometimes significantly. Autofocus is OK and eye autofocus is neat, but overall autofocus isn’t as fast or accurate as the D850. Continuous shooting is similar to the D850, but not at the same quality level, so it isn’t really as similar as it seems. The Z7 also exhibits a “slideshow effect” in the viewfinder when shooting at its highest continuous rate where you see the previous image in the viewfinder instead of the actual subject you are tracking. Not so great for wildlife and not so great for action.
Nikon also used the Z series to introduce a new lens mount that is incompatible with my lens library. The Z mount has some amazing lenses in it, but they are often far more expensive than the F mount versions that I already own. I’m not interested in replacing all of my new lenses with more expensive versions, so I’d be using a Z7 with an F-mount adapter and F-mount lenses, negating most of the size and weight advantage of not having a mirror. In addition, autofocus speed on the lens suffers pretty significantly through that adapter, taking nearly twice as long to lock focus. Nikon’s mirrorless options need to mature more for me to buy in.
A Sony or Canon Mirrorless
Sony created the full-frame mirrorless market and has been leading it ever since. While the ergonomics in its cameras can’t match Nikon and Canon, its capabilities can exceed them. The current crop of Sony cameras boast amazing viewfinders, high continuous shooting rates, quality high resolution sensors, and incredibly accurate and fast autofocus that tracks subjects and eyes. Canon is quickly catching up and even exceeding in some areas, but Nikon is still behind.
I could sell off all of my Nikon equipment and switch, but I’m not interested in that right now. I like Nikon’s ergonomics, customizability, and image quality. I’m happy with my lens library and I’d rather wait for Nikon to get its mirrorless act together. These other cameras are also rather expensive. There is plenty of life left in the DSLR yet.
A Last Minute Find
After eliminating all of my options due to cost or convenience I decided I’d just wait. My plan was to keep an eye on Nikon’s mirrorless developments over the next few years and see if anything I wanted would fall into my price range. If the original Z7 or the D850 dropped significantly in price, I’d consider them. As I ended my search, I remembered one more option – the Nikon D500.
The D500 is a crop-sensor camera Nikon released in 2016. It’s unique because it uses the same industry-leading autofocus system as the D5 and D850, includes a rugged body with a touch screen and illuminated buttons, and shoots up to 10 frames per second for 20 seconds at a time. As a crop-sensor camera, it magnifies the field of view of my lenses by 1.5x, making a 600mm lens into a 900mm lens, which is actually desirable for photographing far-away animals. It has a 20 MP sensor, which isn’t that much lower resolution than my D750, and provides high quality images for its size.
The D500 would give me most of what I was looking for as long as I accepted a crop sensor and it’s magnification. I actually tried this strategy last year by purchasing a used Nikon D3200, which is a consumer-oriented 24 MP crop-sensor camera. While it does let me make animals larger in the frame and provides reasonable image quality, it didn’t work out as expected. As a consumer camera, it’s very small and difficult to hold with long lenses. It doesn’t include many buttons, making settings difficult to change quickly in the field. Continuous shooting is slow at 3 fps, reducing the keeper rate for fast moving animals. To finish it off, the 11-point autofocus system is absolute trash – it focuses extremely slow, is difficult to see, and does not include any subject tracking modes. It reminds me of the autofocus system from my Pentax cameras – bad.
A D500 would provide extra magnification, an extremely accurate autofocus system, and a huge increase in the number of clear shots I can get when tracking animals. This seemed like a good option if I could find one for a good price. The D500 cost $2,000 when introduced and currently sells for $1,500. Used models sell for about $1,200 on eBay. I happened to find one used at B&H Photo Video for $1,050 and I was sold. B&H is a very reputable camera dealer and includes a 90-day warranty and 30-day return period. I applied $450 in credit card points, brining the total net price down to $600. Not bad for a 10 fps camera with industry-leading autofocus.
I’ll use the D500 in concert with my D750. The D750 will be used for landscapes, portraits, and general shooting while the D500 will be used more for animal and sports photography. Someday I’ll add either a D850 or Nikon mirrorless camera to my line up and gradually fill out my lens collection with z-mount lenses.