Nikon D810 vs. D500 for Bird Photography

I got a few questions about how the Nikon D810 would compare to the D500 for bird photography. I too was curious about comparing the two cameras side by side. I have used the D810 extensively for bird photography ever since it was introduced. So I didn’t have any doubt that it is a good camera for the subject. However, since it is less agile than the new D500 I was curious how it would feel using the two cameras intermittently, changing back and forth between the two.

I must put it forward that I am not fixated on birds in flight photography per say. I do have a number of BIF images taken with various cameras from the D3 to the D810. However, I do not consider myself a BIF aficionado or would claim expertise in the field. I usually look at birds as a part of the surrounding, as a small vignette of the environment that includes a bird in it. I am more intrigued by trying to catch some “expression” in the bird’s face as it hunts for food, relaxes or it is checking out the photographer with curiosity. Please do not expect any “winners” among the photographs in this presentation. I was simply comparing the two cameras. If some images have more appeal to them than others then that is due to the birds more than the photographer.

So, what is my opinion after using the two cameras side by side? Well, it is simple. Well, both are just fine in general. Whether one choses the D810 over the D500 or the other way around is simply a matter of personal preferences, budget, and targeted subject matter. I used a Nikkor 500mm f4E FL lens and a 1.4x TC III for all but one of the images. One Cape May warbler was taken with a 200-500mm f5.6 Nikkor which I also test for another article, it is identified with a caption. Anyhow, I was after small birds, mostly warblers and some flycatchers. The birds have just arrived back to their summer range, they were hungry and in the midst of setting up camp and building their nests. So, they were not only small but very active too. They were darting from spot to spot after food and to claim their home  turf. The fast and unpredictable movement immediately added some advantage to the D500 camera. The new AF system of the D500 is simply superior to the D810’s. Following the birds and focusing on them was definitely much easier with the D500. The DX camera definitely wins in this respect. I felt that I was held back by a weight when I was using the D810.

How about image quality? Well, the D810 was holding its own in the quality department. I used the D810 in its DX mode so that I could get 6 frames per second and have the same “DX reach” as the D500 has. The D810 produces 18.3 Mb files when shot in14 Bit RAW losses compressed setting and in DX crop mode. The D500 yields 24.9 Mb files with the same RAW setting. So, theoretically the D500 will win. I was surprised to see that there was not a huge difference between the images from the two cameras. They were quite comparable and could be used for similarly sized prints without too much trouble. This might be the result of the D810’s 4.8µ photo sites compared to the 4.2µ of the D500. The D810 may compensate for its smaller file sizes by having  “larger and cleaner” buckets to record image data. However, the D500 still had a slight advantage as of final image size for print but not as much as I had expected.

This was a field test, not one that would include charts and measurable data obtained in a studio setting. I was simply alternating between the two bodies, a few shots with one then a few shots with the other. I imported the RAW files into my Mac, processed the files from both cameras with Photo Ninja and finished editing in Photoshop CS6. I treated each image as I normally do, there was no preferential treatment for any of the images. I simply looked at the images on my calibrated monitor then processed them to my liking for print. As I said, the smaller file of the D810 held its own to create comparably sized enlargements to the D500 files, the D500 still had a slight but not significant advantage.

So, which one would I take out every day when I am after birds? The D500, no doubt at all. Its AF system and speed makes it a superb bird and wildlife camera. Also, I like the ISO and compensation button layout of the D500 very much. Nikon gave some thought to this. I can change ISO and exposure compensation on the fly without taking the camera off my eye. As of metering I find that the D500 responds somewhat “differently” to the various metering modes. I cannot pinpoint it out as of yet, all I can say is that it is somehow different from the D810. I needed a couple of days to get the hang of it and dial in my compensations for various scenes. I’ll give some more thought to this subject and come up with an article once I can put my feelings into words. Some folks said a few bad words prematurely about the D500 before they consciously adjusted their way of shooting with this camera. After all it is a tool and every new tool needs to be experimented with. I find this camera to be a worthy tool for bird and wildlife photography and shall use it in tandem with the D810 depending on the subject matter I photograph.