For absolutely ages, Canon was the only company to offer a really high-end APS-C format DSLR that was designed to appeal to dedicated enthusiast photographers, or to pros who wanted a lighter body with a smaller sensor to give their lenses extra reach. That’s changed recently, however, with the introduction of the Nikon D500, which means that the Canon EOS 7D Mark II now has a direct competitor. Our mission here is to see how they compare…
Although the 7D Mark II dates from September 2014, it has a very similar pixel count to the recently launched D500; we’re talking 20.2 million versus 20.9 million respectively. The D500 doesn’t have an optical low-pass filter, which could give it a slight edge for detail resolution, albeit at enhanced risk of moire patterning.
Sports and action photography is important to the 7D Mark II and D500’s target market. Accordingly, both cameras have high-spec autofocus systems with lots of AF points. Nikon has been especially generous in giving the D500 a 153-point system, although only 55 of them are individually selectable: the other 98 are support points. Of the 153 points, 99 are the more sensitive cross-type, and 15 of them function with lens and teleconverter combinations with maximum apertures as small as f/8. Of the 55 selectable points, 35 are cross-type, with nine sensitive down to f/8. Nikon claims the focusing system is sensitive down to -4EV.
Meanwhile, the Canon 7D Mark II has 65 AF points, which are all user-selectable and cross-type. The centre point is a more accurate dual-cross type when it’s used with a lens that has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or larger. With smaller aperture lenses from f/2.8 to f/8, it reverts to a cross-type sensor. The system is claimed to be sensitive down to -3EV.
All this indicates that while the 7D Mark II has more selectable points, the D500 has a more sensitive focusing system, with more AF points that function when teleconverters are used.
A high shooting rate is also useful when you’re shooting sport. Despite its more advanced age, the 7D Mark II matches the D500 here, with both cameras able to shoot at up to 10 frames per second with full autofocus and metering functions. The D500 can shoot at this rate for up to 200 14-bit lossless compressed raw files, while the 7D II can only shoot 31 raw files. If you’re willing to forgo raw files on the 7D II, you can shoot up to 1,090 JPEGs in a single burst. Swings and roundabouts spring to mind.
Low-light performance is a key area for the Nikon D500: it has a standard sensitivity range of ISO100-51,200. There are also five expansion settings that give a maximum equivalent setting of ISO1,640,000 – an incredibly high figure that beats all other APS-C format SLRs. In comparison, the 7D Mark II’s native sensitivity range is ISO100 to 16,000. The two expansion settings give a maximum value of ISO 51,200 – the D500’s top native setting.
It’s possible to shoot Full HD video with both cameras, but only the D500 has 4K capability. That’s a major plus for the Nikon camera – but focusing in Video or Live View modes relies solely on contrast detection, whereas the Canon camera has faster Dual-Pixel AF technology, which incorporates phase-detection focusing.
One disappointment with the 7D Mark II is that it doesn’t have Wi-Fi connectivity built-in. (There is a GPS unit, though.) Nikon, however, used the D500 to introduce SnapBridge, a Wi-Fi system that uses low-power Bluetooth communication to maintain a connection between a paired camera and a smart device at all times. It can also be set to allow 2MP images to be transferred automatically to the photo or tablet – even if the camera is turned off.
Build and handling
The two cameras aren’t a million miles apart in terms of size and shape, but the D500 is just a shade beefier-looking. A glance at the spec sheets confirms that it is 150g lighter. This weight difference doesn’t reflect in the feel of the camera: it seems every bit as tough as the 7D Mark II. Both models have weatherproof and dustproof seals.
The control layouts follow the familiar Canon and Nikon patterns. The 7D Mark II has a dedicated mode dial on the left of the top-plate, and the D500 has a button that must be used in conjunction with the rear Command Dial to set the exposure mode. The D500 has a dial for setting the drive mode on the left of the top-plate while the 7D Mark II uses a button along with the Quick Control Dial to set the same feature.
A key difference between the two cameras is that while the 7D II’s screen is fixed, the D500’s screen is mounted on a tilting bracket, which enables it to be tipped up or down for easier viewing when shooting landscape-format images from below or above head-height. It’s especially useful to videographers, who need to use the screen for composing scenes. The bracket is nice and solid, and seems set to work well for a long time.
At 3.2 inches, the D500’s screen is also 0.2 inches bigger across the diagonal than the 7D Mark II’s. Perhaps more significant to the handling, however, is the fact that the D500’s screen is touch-sensitive. Unfortunately it’s not possible to use it to select settings or navigate the menu with taps on the screen, but it’s very useful for setting the AF point when you’re shooting in Live View or Video mode. You can also scroll through images with a swipe and zoom in with a double-tap to check sharpness.
Sticking with the screen, with 2,359,000 dots rather than 1,040,000 dots, the Nikon monitor provides a sharper, more detailed view than the Canon screen. This is especially noticeable when you zoom in to check focus and sharpness.
As you might expect, the viewfinders provide a similar view; both are large and bright. When you’re shooting, you’ll spot that the Nikon camera’s AF points extend slightly further towards the edges of the frame. It’s most noticeable in the vertical distribution.
Both cameras have a dedicated control for setting the AF point. With the 7D Mark II, you have to press a button before the focus point can be changed via the joystick-like controller, but there’s an option in the menu that allows you to do it directly. There are a couple of frustrations with the Canon control, however. You need to half-press the shutter release to wake the AF system and enable the point to be moved; you then have to nudge and release repeatedly to move from point to point – you can’t just push and hold the stick to jump through several points. Nikon has got these two issues cracked, on the other hand.
Our resolution chart results make interesting viewing. Although the two cameras have a similar pixel count, the D500 is able to resolve just a little more detail throughout much of the sensitivity range. It doesn’t consistently beat the 7D Mark II, but it has a slight edge that we can attribute to the lack of an optical low-pass filter.
Examining images taken throughout the sensitivity range reveals that noise levels from the two cameras are very similar, even at the 7D Mark II’s top expansion setting (ISO 51,200). This suggests that, rather than making a major breakthrough with noise control, Nikon has pushed the boundaries to allow photographers to make their own decisions about what is acceptable image quality in any given shooting situation. Indeed, the D500’s uppermost settings produce terrible results: in low light you’ll struggle to recognise the subject at Hi 5 (ISO 1,640,000).
The Canon 7D Mark II’s autofocus system is very good: it gets moving subjects sharp quickly and can keep them in focus in many situations. The D500’s is just a shade nippier, though, and needs very little contrast to operate. It also latches onto subjects quicker, and I found I got a slightly higher hit rate with it.
Switch to Live View or Video mode, however, and the 7D Mark II’s Dual Pixel AF technology comes into play, resulting in much smoother, faster AF adjustment than the D500’s contrast-detection system can manage. While experienced videographers will still focus manually, you can get away with autofocusing while shooting video with the 7D II – but you really can’t with the D500.
When using the general-purpose Evaluative (Canon) and Matrix (Nikon) metering systems during this test, there were a few occasions when a little exposure compensation was required, sometimes by one camera, sometimes by both. It was never excessive with either camera, although the D500 copes especially well with bright subjects.
The D500’s auto white balance system tends to produce neutral to cold results, while the 7D Mark II’s errs more on the side of warmth. Neither is objectionable and there’s little in it, but when viewed alongside each other, I suspect most people may prefer the Canon results.
The Canon 7D Mark II is an excellent camera that has stood the test of time very well, and its image quality is a near match to that of the Nikon D500. However, the D500 benefits from a little finessing that has been brought about by recent developments. The autofocusing system is absolutely superb, and the whole camera just seems a little more responsive than its Canon counterpart. The new SnapBridge technology is a boon to anyone who likes to share images on a frequent basis, because it saves you from having to remake the connection with your phone.
It’s a shame that Nikon hasn’t put some effort into improving the Live View and Video autofocus system for the D500, because the tilting touch-sensitive screen are a great partnership for the 4K video recording capability.