Nikon’s new wireless tethering feature will change the way you take pictures

Nikon announced the D500, the company’s latest top-of-the-line APS-C DSLR, at CES back in January. The $2,000 camera finally hit store shelves early this summer, and I spent a few weeks using it as my main walkaround camera. It is an exceptional camera, offering deep manual controls, the ability to shoot up to 10 frames per second, and capture 4K video.

But the most unique feature of the D500 is that it was the first Nikon camera with Snapbridge. Snapbridge is Nikon’s way of using Bluetooth Low Energy to establish an always-on connection between your camera and your phone. It’s an evolution of the idea of a Wi-Fi-connected camera, and it’s fantastic.

In fact, it’s so good that Snapbridge makes every other solution for connecting your phone to a camera feel archaic. It’s really that much faster and more reliable than methods used by other camera makers. It’s not flawless — the initial connection process is buggy, and if you ever lose the connection with your phone you have to deal with the headache of unpairing and repairing the two devices. But when Snapbridge works, which is almost all of the time, it feels like the best possible way to quickly access, edit, and share photos from a full-size camera.

Smartphones have been eating into the camera market in a huge way over the last half decade. To staunch the bleeding, camera companies started trying to build a bridge between smartphones and their products. One of the earliest manifestations of this was the Eye-Fi card, an SD card with a small wireless radio that let you transfer photos from the card to your phone. It was a novel idea, but in practice it was always buggy, slow, or both. And recently, things somehow got even worse for Eye-Fi users — the company is phasing out its older Wi-Fi SD cards and users are going to lose some of that functionality.

Around the same time that Eye-Fi hit the scene, companies started building Wi-Fi right into their cameras. This let you shoot photos, pull out your phone, open an app, and gain access to the files that you just created with that camera. Wi-Fi also allowed for relatively fast file transfers.

What Nikon has done with Snapbridge is similar in many ways. You shoot with the D500 (or other new Snapbridge-equipped Nikon product, like the D3400, or the company’s forthcoming action cameras), and then you’re able to access those photos on your smartphone via the Snapbridge app, download the ones you like, and post, edit, or share them to your heart’s desire. You're essentially wirelessly tethering the camera to your phone.

The real difference is that always on connection. Snapbridge uses Bluetooth Low Energy to connect to your phone, which means that pairing stays put even if you turn the D500 off. (It even remains if you swap out the camera’s battery!) Using BLE also means that the camera won’t drain your phone’s battery, too. Better yet, it eliminates the most annoying part of using Wi-Fi on cameras, which is that you always have to reconnect your phone to the camera, either because your phone jumped to another Wi-Fi connection or because the camera powered down its Wi-Fi radio. (This was always especially annoying on iPhones, where you’d have to constantly go back to the settings menu to reconnect to the camera’s Wi-Fi.)

One of the reasons camera companies hadn’t turned to BLE is because the transfer speeds can be slow. The D500 even takes around 10 seconds to transfer full resolution photos, and it won’t work with RAW files. But Snapbridge defaults to creating and transferring 2-megapixel versions of the photos you take. That’s just high-resolution enough to look fine on Instagram and, in many cases, even Facebook. (You can definitely tell the difference between the low-res images and full-resolution ones on a Retina screen, though.)

My favorite thing about Snapbridge is the feature I thought I would hate the most. The app has a mode that lets the camera automatically send those 2-megapixel versions of every photo you take to your phone. I’m a total over-shooter — I like to rely heavily on burst shooting to make sure I get the right shot and get it in focus — so I was skeptical of this aspect of Snapbridge. But I was wrong.

Knowing that every photo was being transferred to my phone made me dial back the amount of burst shooting I did with the D500 (a tough decision to make, I might add, since the D500 can shoot a thrilling 10 frames per second). I became more decisive with what I shot. And even during moments when I wasn’t, the 2-megapixel files didn’t bog down my 64GB iPhone. (An aside: Snapbridge is available on both Android and iOS, but I used it most with my iPhone 6. iPhones tend to be frustrating when it comes to wireless connections — especially Wi-Fi — so I was expecting Snapbridge to be a problem. It’s not!)

With the D500 and Snapbridge, I almost completely ignored my iPhone’s camera. It was like I didn’t need it anymore. Every time I wanted to take a picture I opted for the D500, knowing that in a few seconds it would be waiting for me on my phone. The ultimate example of this was at a friend’s wedding. Normally, I’d have posted photos from my iPhone to Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag for the wedding. But this time around I had Snapbridge and the D500, so I shot more confidently and was able to produce and share better results without any extra lag.

I love how far smartphone cameras have come, but I’m still a big believer in carrying around a more capable camera. Until now that decision has involved a tradeoff: you gain a significant boost in quality at the cost of instant gratification. Snapbridge is the kind of feature that helps break down all the steps that separate those two sides of the equation. With it, you really get the best of both worlds.

Snapbridge is one small part of the D500’s experience, which again, is a superb (and relatively expensive) camera. But Snapbridge is also quickly becoming a flagship feature of all of Nikon’s new cameras — something that’s made me, a lifelong Canon shooter, consider jumping ship. The convenience of having a camera on your smartphone — especially one that’s as good as what you find on the iPhone 7, Google Pixel, and Galaxy S7 Edge — is hard to beat. But Snapbridge, and the inevitable copycat ideas that will follow, has a chance to shift the power back to standalone cameras.


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