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Nikon D5 review: Pristine camera quality with a price tag to match

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £5999
inc VAT

Too sharp for its own good but a worthwhile investment that's perfect for the professionals


  • Feels indestructible
  • Fantastic image quality
  • World-beating battery life


  • Cost, cost, cost
  • No Wi-Fi
  • Better video modes elsewhere

Nikon D5 review: What you need to know

Nikon’s D5 is what happens when a manufacturer throws caution and economy to the wind. What we have here is a heavy – 1.4kg – huge – 160 x 159mm camera that can shoot at 12fps with virtually no end in sight, even in RAW. Its autofocus, build quality, memory card spec and usability all result in a camera that pros can pick up and use to create great quality images in the toughest conditions. To that end, it shoots at a positively barmy range of ISOs, from 50 at the low end to more than three million. Along the way, it offers a full-size gigabit Ethernet port and 4K video recording, too.

All cameras have a limit – a point beyond which they can’t be pushed any further without either falling apart or producing sub-par images. The Nikon D5’s headroom is somewhere in the stratosphere.

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Nikon D5 review: Price and competition

High-end pros have a tough choice: if money is no object, do you buy the Nikon D5 or the Canon 1D X Mark II. Put the cameras side by side and the untrained eye will have difficulty telling them apart: they’re about the same size and weight, and look and feel similar when you pick them up. Indeed, start shooting and their performance is about the same – up to 12fps on the Nikon D5 and up to 14fps on the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II (the Nikon will shoot 14fps but only in mirror-up mode and only with auto-exposure and autofocus turned off).

So what else is there for the photographer with six grand burning a hole in their proverbial? Well, this combination of performance and image quality is a rarity. Coming close is the Sony A9, a smashing, 24.2-megapixel camera that can shoot up to 20fps. Like both the Nikon D5 and Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, it offers superlative-defying autofocus performance, this time in a normal-height body that weighs a lot less – just 673g, or about half the Nikon or Canon’s kerb weight. It’s cheaper, but there are compromises. Not least of these is battery life, which at 650 shots is half the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II’s capacity and more than five times less than the Nikon D5’s. It also – although this is hard to quantify – feels a little less bombproof than either.

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Nikon D5 review: Features and design

The D5 is as much about handling and performance as it is about image quality. As a take-anywhere, do-anything camera it’s a success: weather-sealed at every gasket and button, and clad in hard-wearing magnesium alloy.

It’s undeniably plus-sized: the vertical grip at the bottom means that from tripod socket to mirror-box it’s nearly 16cm tall – almost as much as it is wide. That leads to some superb ergonomics: the grips are luxuriously padded, deep and secure, however you hold it. The buttons are big, with deep presses that make the camera easy to use. They’re multitudinous, too: every control a photographer could reasonably want is there, including dedicated buttons for white balance, ISO, exposure compensation and more. You also get no fewer than three Fn buttons, allowing you to set up the D5 just as you want.

The touchscreen on the back is bright, sharp and responsive. Its 3.2in diagonal is par for the course, although it offers a higher resolution than many at 2.359 million pixels. You also get a top-mounted LCD for shooting information, which is supplemented by a second LCD beneath the review monitor for niceties such as the current file format and white balance.

Still, it can be fatiguing to use: with no lens you’re looking at a body weighing a little under 1.5 kilos. Given that few will be pairing the D5 with lightweight consumer lenses you can expect it to provide quite the workout.

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The good news is that performance more than matches its ergonomics, and more than compensates for its weight. You want numbers? We’ve got ’em. The Nikon D5 uses Nikon’s new Expeed 5 image processor, allowing the camera to shoot up to 12fps with auto exposure and autofocus doing the number-crunching between every frame, or 14fps with the mirror up and no between-frame calculations. Nerds will point out that the Canon 1D X Mark II can shoot 14fps with autoexposure and autofocus between frames, but in practical use the difference between 12fps and 14fps is indistinguishable; trying to meaningfully control the D5 at its fastest burst setting put us in mind of a toddler trying to manage a firehose.

At top speed we almost always got far more frames than we needed, so it’s fortunate that, like the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, the Nikon D5 allows you to choose from full-pelt continuous mode and lesser speeds – you can opt for a framerate between 1fps and the full 14fps in one frame-per-second increments. It’s good to know that the D5 will keep up when faced with fast-paced action, as 12fps is enough for the most kinetic events. The buffer is spectacular: we managed 81 frames in RAW at 12fps before the camera slowed its roll, but there was no end in sight when we switched to JPEGs. You’ll receive a clip round the ear for the D5’s staccato racket before it runs out of buffer.

Autofocus doesn’t let the side down, with 153 AF points, 99 of which are cross-type. In use, it grabs your subject and holds on tenaciously: sharp focus is quickly acquired and difficult to shake. We paired our D5 with Nikon’s glorious 35mm f/1.4G lens and were impressed by the combo’s near indefatigable sharpness.

Unusually, the D5 can be bought with either twin CompactFlash or twin XQD ports, with the latter obviously the more future-proof option. Even more unusually, if you buy one format and decide you’d prefer the other option, Nikon can whip out the slots your camera came with and install the other option. Whatever you choose, there are two memory card slots, with the standard option to fill one card then the other, write to both simultaneously for redundancy, or to shoot RAWs to one card and JPEGs to the other.

All the usual ports are present and correct, including Type C HDMI, microphone in and audio out, and a USB Micro-B connector. A lesser-spotted inclusion, for amateurs at least, is the full-sized Gigabit Ethernet port, but native wireless connectivity is missing. If you want to send images wirelessly, brace yourself for the frankly bonkers £780 asking price of the Nikon WT-6 wireless file transmitter, which adds access points, HTTP and FTP modes to a camera that should arguably be able to do all those things out of the box.

One area where performance very definitely sits in the pro category is the battery. Like the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, Nikon has used the vertical grip at the bottom to house an extra-big battery; a 2,500mAh number with a claimed life of 3,780 shots per charge. Calling that class-leading is like calling snow cold: even the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, with its excellent 1,210 shot CIPA rating, doesn’t come close. If you like your camera ready to go every day without watching the battery meter drop when you actually start using it, the D5 won’t disappoint. Pleasingly, the battery charger can charge two batteries at once – as does Canon’s.

Nikon D5 review: Photo quality

The Nikon D5’s ISO options range from ISO 50 to ISO STREWTH, by which we mean its maximum ISO of 102,400, plus five stops. For those who can’t do the maths that’s equivalent to ISO three million, eight hundred thousand, which we’ve written out in words to underline the sheer madness of it all.

Image quality – inevitably – is horrendous at the D5’s maximum sensitivity, but focussing on its party piece does the camera a disservice, because it produces absolutely stupendous images at ISOs that defeat lesser cameras. Images to ISO 6400 stood up well in our static tests, and images to around ISO 3200 did well in the real world. A direct comparison between the Nikon D5, Canon EOS 1D X Mark II and Sony A9 was an exercise in hair splitting, with all three superb at extreme ISOs.

Otherwise, our real-world testing of the D5 revealed a camera that doesn’t just turn out lots of images fast; it turns out lots of great images fast. It’s super usable thanks to its formidable framerate, and its autofocus means sharp shots. Nikon’s imaging heritage is brought to bear, and images look great, with lovely colour reproduction straight off the sensor, but with plenty of dynamic range for those who love a bit of Photoshop.

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Nikon D5 review: Video quality

If the D5 didn’t shoot 4K video it would be laughed off the shelves, so, flick the switch on the back to video mode and you can avail yourself of 30, 25 or 24fps 4K video shooting, albeit with a 1.5x crop to native pixel resolution. If you want to shoot using the whole frame, you’ll need to drop to 1080p. Alternatively, a per-pixel crop is available as well.

Dropping to 1080p opens a few new options for frame rate, with up to 60fps available for slow motion footage. The options are sufficient for run-and-gun news-gatherers, but more serious filmmakers will likely prefer the Canon EOS 1D X Mark II, which shoots up to 120fps in Full HD, or 60fps in 4K.

Neither camera – nor the Sony A9 – allows you to shoot in log. Still, set the Nikon D5 to a flat colour profile and you’ll get lovely, gradable footage. The type C HDMI connector offers clean output, so you can either record internally or via an HDMI recorder at 8-bit 4:2:2. The audio in and out sockets boost the D5’s video credentials but, compared to the competition, there are arguably better options for those whose videography approaches 50% of their work.

Nikon D5 review: Verdict

What a piece of kit. Point the Nikon D5 at unfolding action, hold the AF button down and start shooting and you’ll be amazed at its fantastic hit rate. Sharp image after sharp, well-exposed image are pulled at incredible speed onto its memory cards, ready to be published anywhere. It’s an absolute weapon – it feels like it could withstand anything up to a direct hit from an ICBM, making it a camera for those who never know exactly where, and in what conditions, they might end up shooting. If you’re a stills photographer uncommitted to either of the big two DSLR manufacturers you have a virtually impossible choice – this, or the equally superb and tank-like Canon EOS 1D X Mark II. Both shoot beautiful images that are nearly impossible to tell apart in controlled conditions; both offer a vast range of pro lenses and light support.

If you’re less than a full-time pro, you don’t need this. Its ability to get the shot, whatever the conditions, however many days since you’ve seen an electrical outlet, is overkill for most. Indeed, many pros will find themselves only taking full advantage of it periodically – we found its maximum burst speed normally resulted in way too many images. But, when the chips are down, the weather is foul and your editor is screaming at you to get something publishable in the next hour, the Nikon D5 is all the camera you’ll need.

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