When it comes to launching flagship cameras, stating that a lot of thought goes into it is a bit of an understatement. Indeed, much research, professional feedback, and testing takes place for a long period of time before we launch the next flagship marking progression in the field of photography. From the Nikon D3 to the Nikon D5, multi-award winning sports photographer, Mark Pain has extensive experience with all our flagship DSLRs. Here, he shares his thoughts about their evolution.
“When it comes to the launch of new cameras, most professional photographers prefer evolution in their camera systems rather than revolution. This is even more the case with sports photographers who dislike huge changes in design. As reaction speeds have to be so high, it is essential for us to know and predict exactly how a camera is going to behave. We want a consistency to the camera and want them to behave in the same way again and again and again. We do not have time to think about, or compensate for, a camera’s quirkiness or an unpredictable software or AF glitch. If you have to do that, you’ve missed the shot.
When Nikon introduced the Nikon D3 in late 2007, it changed the way sports photographers could work. It was the first time any camera manufacturer had produced a full-frame DSLR that shot at anywhere near the speed that we needed. At 9fps it had the speed we were all screaming for and it was the first digital Nikon to use the 24 x 36mm image area traditional to 35mm still film. It was truly revolutionary and it completely changed the way sports photographers could work. Wide angles were true wide angles once more and every lens you put on it once again felt “right”. A 300mm F2.8 felt like the classic sports telephoto lens, and not an ‘over-lensed’ 450mm with 1.5 crop sensors, which it had become.
But most of all, the D3 had the perfect balance of camera speed, file quality and handling. It was the ideal combination of all those vital elements and every aspect of the camera felt as it should. The D3s was an excellent upgrade and with improvement sensor performance at higher ISO’s. So what came next?
The D5 & D500
Normally, Nikon launches a new flagship DSLR in a summer Olympics year. After the D3, the progression achieved in the D4 and D4s came to full fruition in the much anticipated Nikon D5 and Nikon D500. Now with months of using both the D5 and D500 behind me, I can say the D5 has taken the DSLR to a new level.
The D5’s handling and image quality are sublime and it’s new AF system is nothing short of sensational. I was keen to test the AF on the D500 and compare it to the D5 at the start of the Premier League football season. The AF settings options have changed compared to the D4s and it’s fair to say that the AF performance on both of the D5 and D500 is nothing short of a game-changer in the DSLR world.
Where the D4/D4s had a single processor to deal with all camera and AF data, the D5 and the D500 now have dual processors, with one dedicated solely to the AF system. That in turn allows the cameras to deal way more efficiently with all that AF data and more.
On the D4s, the best AF performance for sports by far was achieved by using 9 Dynamic Points (D9) in AF-C (continuous AF) mode. Using 9 dynamic AF points around a selected single AF point produced enough usable data for pretty efficient AF performance. A single AF point (S) is too few for sport and the next setting up D25 is just too many and too large. What’s more, you had to be very specific when and when not to use the Dynamic 3D focus setting on the D4/D4s. It worked on some subjects a lot better than others. However, this is a completely different story on the D5/D500. It works all the time !
The Multi-Cam autofocus module in the D5 and D500 has 153 AF points, of which 99 are the high performing cross-type. 55 different AF points can be selected. The huge difference in the new AF system is in the cameras’ ability to track its subject. Rather than choose a particular AF point (or group of points) and try to keep the them on the centre of your moving subject, the cameras can now successfully follow that subject for you in 3D tracking mode within the 153 points.
How does the D5 & D500 do it so well?
With their increased processor power, the D5 and D500 now add both colour and pattern information to their AF calculations, resulting in breathtaking tracking. When you first gain focus on your subject, the camera collects the colour information and patterns, and uses them in tandem with contrast and movement calculations that result in pin sharp images, almost every time.
It takes some getting used to, allowing the AF point you’d initially chosen to move across the screen all by itself following your subject, but I found it to be very reliable.
I had successfully tried the 3D tracking when shooting Premier League Football. Football tends to be two-man action in contrasting and different coloured kits, and it worked brilliantly. It also worked very accurately when you turn on Face Recognition in the 3D mode. It almost blows your mind !
But I also wanted to try the system during the Autumn Internationals Rugby series, at the home of rugby in England – Twickenham. Rugby tends to throw up slightly “busier” images, with more bodies and action in the frames. The 3D tracking may get confused, I thought. However this was not entirely the case.
With the action further away the cameras can get confused somewhat if there are more than two or three players near each other in the same kit, jumping from one AF point to the other. However for the crucial try pictures the 3D tracking was superb. I did though adjust the Focus Tracking down a notch towards “Delayed”, which stopped the AF point moving around as quickly and provided for far more predictable behaviour.
This was especially true on the D500. Despite having exactly the same AF system as that on the D5, for some reason the fewest number of Dynamic Points you can choose on the D500 is 25. This was also true for the D5 when it was launched, but a firmware update added the D9 AF option again, the same as on the D4/D4s. Why this is the case on the D500 I’m not sure, but 25 dynamic points is too big an area for rugby union, so 3D is by far the best option.
The ability of both cameras to focus in regular dynamic mode in sensational. The fact that they can then go a stage further and do even better with 3D tracking in the right circumstances in nothing short of incredible. Some might say it’s revolution.”