Amazed by the Nikon D500

Posted on 30 Jun, 2016 by Scott Jones
Enea-Bastiannini-Assen-2016-S

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is this one: I want to take good photos of motor sports, what camera equipment should I buy?

Some time ago I answered a version of this question for a lucky fellow who had $10,000 to spend. This is a pretty easy question to answer, as you can get a lot of good stuff for that much money.

But what if your budget is half that, or even less? A smaller budget makes the question much more difficult to answer, because motor sports are among the most challenging subjects to photograph well. If you’ve tried it, you know what I mean.

Recently a Patreon supporter asked me his own version of the question, saying that he really wanted to learn to take better pictures at the race track and was willing to spend some money toward this goal. He had in mind $1,000 for new camera gear.

That’s a lot of money, especially when you think of how much food it can buy, or how many times it can fill up your gas tank, or how many pairs of shoes for your kids it would provide. You can also get a pretty darned good camera and lens for $1,000, one that would allow you to make very nice photos of the family and nature, street scenes, your cat, and so on.

But if what you want to do is shoot motorcycle racing, going into this endeavor with a budget of $1,000 is quite a challenge. More than once in the past this question has got me thinking about what you really need, what features you simply have to have in your equipment when photographing racing.

To answer this question, let’s consider thew following. To maintain safety at race track, people are kept a fair distance away from the action. This is especially true for fans, as we working photographers are usually granted access much closer to the track itself than fans are. But often even we are kept far away and forced to shoot over vast run off areas. So a telephoto lens is a requirement to capture detail, to see clearly what’s going on with the motorcycle and rider when this duo is far away from where you are standing.

The other main compilation is that the subject, that same bike and rider, are often moving very quickly, and tracking a fast-moving object through a viewfinder is no easy task. Neither is it easy for the camera and lens to maintain accurate focus on a small subject that is going as fast as MotoGP bikes often do.

Most cameras, in fact I’d say all modern DSLR cameras, are capable of properly calculating exposure in a split second. And the quality of image sensors continues to rise as that technology advances – in my opinion sensor quality has been there for years, since the Canon 5D and the Nikon D700. What we’re getting now as far as sensors go is greater high-ISO performance and higher resolution.

If you follow my advice, often given here in other posts and videos, you’re using Manual mode or as close to it as your experience allows (Shutter or Aperture priority), so you’re already doing most or at least some of the work as far as exposure goes. And at the risk of over-ringing this bell, taking control of the exposure settings is a vital part of creating the type of image you want in a given situation.

So if you’re doing the exposure calculations rather than relying on your cameras computer to do that work (albeit relying on the camera’s metering system as a vital tool), what is left to depend on the camera for? When you’re at the track, what do you really need your camera to do for you?

The answer is: autofocus.

Manually focusing on a fast-moving subject is really difficult. I don’t know if anyone would disagree with me when I say that when shooting motor sports, or any other subject where you’re trying to track and capture the movement of a small object going fast, autofocus is the single most important thing for a camera system to do for the user.

In the past, camera systems with fast, accurate autofocus have been really expensive. I have noticed that the more I pay for a camera body and lens, the better the autofocus is. This is the main reason why I rely on Nikon D700, D4 and D3X bodies for shooting MotoGP. These cameras all offer very good image quality AND very fast autofocus when used with high quality lenses.

Lenses are a large part of the fast autofocus equation because they have motors to move the internal elements in response to the commands given by whatever body they are attached to, and in general the more expensive the lens (if it’s one designed for sports work), the faster it will respond to those commands. Sure, more expensive lenses have coatings and glass quality that offer higher quality images, weather sealing, durability, and so on. These are all valuable features when you’re working in tough environments, so I don’t want to undervalue these qualities in pro-level lenses. But even these things are improving all the time in the lower levels of lenses and for amateurs, I’d say that all but the cheapest lenses offer decent to very good image quality and toughness.

Camera bodies (especially these days when video is an integral part of the feature set) offer all sorts of bells and whistles to complete each model’s long list of features. But how many of those features do you really need to get good, sharp photos at a race track? Built in wifi is cool, a touch screen on the back is pretty trick, other things are nice to have but not really necessary when getting sharp images is your main concern.

Once again, if your camera’s image quality is good enough for your needs, and if you’re doing the exposure settings yourself, the only thing you really need the camera system to do for you is the autofocus.

So I’m excited to write this post because Nikon has helped answer the budget version of this question.

For some time my good friend and colleague Tony Goldsmith had been talking about his interest in a new camera model, the Nikon D500. I checked out the specs and thought, it’s a DX (crop sensor) body at 20 megapixels, so the image quality won’t be as good as my full-frame cameras, and it’s only $2,000 so it won’t have a really good autofocus system. It’s probably a great camera for other things but I doubt it will be much good in MotoGP.

Recently at the Dutch GP I was reunited with Tony and found that he had added a D500 to his set up. He’d used it a few weeks earlier at the Isle of Man TT and been very pleased. He showed me some images from the D500 and I was amazed at the image quality. He also said it focused like a beast and that I had to try it over the weekend.

He was using his D500 mainly with another new piece of equipment, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens. He was liking this lens so much he hadn’t even brought his 500mm f/4 with him to Assen.

Fortunately, the Dutch branch of Nikon Professional Services was present at Assen for the MotoGP race and I was able to try the Nikon D500 and the 200-500mm f/5.6, as well as the D5, although my thoughts on that camera are for another day.

Tony was right about the performance of the D500 – it’s the best crop frame camera I’ve ever used. It shares with its big brother, the D5, the same 153 focus point system which accounts for its fast, accurate autofocus performance. And the image quality from its 20 megapixel APS-C sensor is simply amazing.

It has other nice qualities, such as being smaller and lighter than a Nikon full size body like the D5, which is really nice at the end of a long weekend. Because it’s a crop frame sensor, it also gives you an effective 1.5x telephoto boost, which comes in handy at the race track, turning your 500mm lens into an equivalent 750mm focal length.

But other features aside, its performance as a motor sports camera is just fantastic. Take a look at this image, go ahead and click on it for a larger view:

Niccolo-Antonelli-Assen-2016-1

I would never have guessed that this image was from a crop frame camera if I didn’t know. The sharpness and detail are remarkably good, much better than I’ve seen in any crop frame camera I’ve used until now.

Zoomed in we can see even better what I mean:

Niccolo-Antonelli-Assen-2016-2

On any previous Nikon crop frame camera I’d expect some softness, due to a combination of the crop sensor image quality being not as good as that of a full frame sensor and to the camera’s auto focus having lagged a bit behind the action. But this image from a $2,000 crop frame camera is as good as I can hope for with my D4 and D3x.

More on the Nikon D500 and 200-500mm f/5.6 on the next page:

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