We’ve been using the Nikon D850 for a couple of months now and had plenty of chances to really put the camera through its paces.
Spluttered with sand and splashed with water at the beach. Mounted on a tripod out and about on cold autumnal mornings. The Nikon D850 has been through a lot with us.
Our title is a bit of a spoiler, but we really rate the camera. Goodness, it is one heck of a camera. It’s a total overhaul from the Nikon D810, which is still a great camera. In fact, we think the Nikon D850 is the best all-round DSLR we’ve ever used.
With a 45.4-million-pixel full-frame sensor and lightning-quick continuous AF at up to 9fps, the Nikon D850 is great for landscapes, sports and everything in-between.
Let’s run through our personal highlights of the Nikon D850.
Nikon D850: Amazing Image Quality
• 45.4-million-pixel FX sensor
• Class-leading dynamic range
• Improved color rendition
• Wide choice of sharp and fast lenses
The D850 is Nikon’s highest resolution camera, capable of exceptional detail. It’s also backed up by an increasing number of new sharp and fast lenses that can match the camera’s performance.
Put the high resolution, wide dynamic range, excellent color rendition and the latest lenses together, and Nikon has created a professional-level marvel.
Resolution and Detail
Full-resolution 45.4-million-pixel images at a perfectly acceptable 240dpi print resolution create massive print sizes of 874×583mm! We’re looking forward to making prints that do such detail justice.
In practice, such a high-resolution in turn improves the resolution of the DX crop mode (APS-C), plus the medium and small size image files. When full-resolution images are downsized, detail can look sharper and noise less obvious.
Consequently, a spotlight is on lens quality and the photographer’s technique. Lens distortions and camera shake are more obvious when viewing images at 100%.
As such, when shooting handheld, we found that at least 1EV faster shutter speeds are necessary in order to avoid blurry looking images. Unfortunately, that does minimise the amount of possible light intake.
Ultimately though, in the right hands and with a good lens, the Nikon D850 gives pin sharp detail that is a level up from the Nikon D810.
Normally high-resolution cameras struggle more to create sharp detail in low contrast light. From our experience though, images are clean from ISO 64 to ISO 1600. Luminance noise is more obvious at ISO 3200 and steadily increases up the ISO range.
We have not used a DSLR camera with a better dynamic range than the Nikon D850. At its true base ISO 64 setting, the amount of tonal detail in the highlights and shadow areas is excellent.
In one scenario, we took some window light portraits, which is a situation where a wide dynamic range is really useful. That’s because the light outside is brighter than inside, plus any shine on the skin can be pure white. We have been able to recover a lot of detail in such bright highlights.
We have also brightened up dark images by around +4EV and found relatively clean detail in the shadow areas.
All this is to say that even if lighting isn’t ideal, the D850 can squeeze out an impressive range of tones in a performance that we would compare to medium format cameras.
Colour & Metering
One of the most pleasant surprises about the D850 is how well it renders color. The camera uses Nikon’s latest 3D color matrix metering III system, with 180,000 pixel RGB metering sensor.
A few times we tested the metering using a grey card for colour reference and often the suggested white balance setting is a very similar colour temperature to the one chosen by the camera’s AWB. When subjects are in the shade, AWB colours can be a little cool, but nothing too ungainly.
In general we found that the Neutral picture setting is a good place to start from. Skin tones are most accurate in this setting, plus more vibrancy can be added afterwards to landscape images and the like if needed. Often JPEGs are good straight out the camera.
Nikon D850: Great For Sports
• 19.4-million-pixel DX crop mode with 1.5x magnification
• EXPEED 5 processor
• Best ever autofocus system
• Up to 9fps
We think the D850 will interest landscape and studio photographers more, but the camera is highly capable for action photography too. Here’s why:
The Nikon D850 uses the same EXPEED 5 processor and AF system as used in the Nikon D5, which is Nikon’s most expensive DSLR used by sports photographers.
By our reckoning, the 153-point phase detection auto focus system is currently the most capable AF system on the market. Auto focus sensitivity is down to -4EV in the centre point while other AF points are sensitive down to -3EV. In short, the D850 can focus quickly in near darkness when using the through-the-eye viewfinder.
In use for action sequences, the AF subject tracking is highly effective. Take the surfing picture. Surfing is a sport that can be hard to capture because there is so much going on in the scene that could hinder accurate AF. Yet for many of our sequences the surfer is sharp for at least 8 out of 10 shots.
There are a few AF modes to choose from. When capturing individuals in action, we found the grouped AF mode is particularly effective.
In live view mode all is different and the Nikon D850 auto focusing is much less capable. We’d use live view focusing for static subjects rather than action.
One of our favourite features of the Nikon D850 is its DX crop mode. That’s Nikon’s denotation of APS-C format, which gives a 1.5x magnification of the camera’s full-frame (FX) sensor.
The high resolution 45.4-million-pixel FX sensor makes the DX crop more useful than ever, because you in turn get 19.4-million-pixel images. The Nikon D500 and Nikon D5 max out at practically the same resolution, with 20.9MP.
The 1.5x magnification gives further reach to full-frame lenses, which is especially useful for sports photography when using mid-telephoto lenses. For example, we used the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which in turn becomes a 105-300mm f/2.8 lens.
We also went one step further and added a 2x teleconverter, creating a 210-600mm f/5.6 lens out of the 70-200mm f2.8. Have you seen how much a 600mm f/5.6 lens costs? It’s a whole lot more than the 70-200mm f/2.8 and 2x teleconverter, that’s for sure! (OK, detail is not as sharp, but still.)
In the DX crop mode, the phase detection AF-point array covers virtually the entire frame. The more sensitive AF points work down to f/8 too, so wherever subjects are in the frame, they are covered by the best performing AF points.
You get 7fps, or 9fps with the optional battery grip attached. That speed doesn’t match cameras dedicated for action like the Nikon D5, but in our experience those speeds handle a lot of sports scenarios.
Provided you are using the fastest memory cards available, high-speed shooting sequences last for around 50 frames before the camera slows down. That’s around 7 seconds, which tends to be more than long enough to capture action sequences.
Use the DX crop mode and those high-speed bursts last for longer because there is less data to process than when shooting at 45.4-million-pixels.
More impressive for us is that buffering of those 50 DX crop images is pretty quick, meaning you’re ready to go again shortly after. We’ve used other cameras that can shoot more frames-per-second, but then take longer to buffer before the camera can be used at full capacity again.
If we had to choose, we’d usually go for a camera that buffers quicker like the D850, than one that has faster frame rates. You want to avoid frustrating periods of waiting for the camera to be ready while the action continues.
Nikon D850: A mighty machine
• Great build
• 1840 shot battery life
• Dual card slots
• No built-in flash
The Nikon D850 will be very familiar to Nikon users. Its build quality is superb and we had no hesitation exposing the camera to inclement weather and shooting conditions. Unlike its predecessor the Nikon D810, there is no built-in flash which should actually improve the weather sealing.
We had to do a double take when reading how many shots the battery of the Nikon D850 can take on a full charge. At 1,840 single shots, its the most powerful battery for a mid-size DSLR by a country mile. Mirrorless cameras can’t come close.
You’ll get plenty more shots than that if the camera’s through-the-eye viewfinder is in play and for shooting high-speed sequences. Ultimately, charging batteries is not something you need to think about that often.
If you fork out for the optional MB-D18 battery grip with additional EN-EL18b battery, the battery life is bumped up to 5,140 shots. Yes, you read that correctly.
The Nikon D850 has twin card slots, one for an XQD card and the other a UHS-II compliant SD card. These are currently the two fastest card types on the market.
This is a tough camera built to do a professional job.
Nikon D850: Great handling
• Refined body
• Nikon’s largest optical viewfinder
• Bright and vibrant 3.2in tilt-touchscreen
• Wi-Fi for quick image transfers
• Silent electronic shutter
• Illuminated buttons
Compared to the D810, the D850 sits in the hand all the better. It’s grip is more defined, meaning you get a more secure and comfortable hold. This is especially useful with heavier glass attached to the front.
The viewing experience of the Nikon D850 is a delight. You have what is Nikon’s largest through-the-eye viewfinder, providing 100% coverage and 0.75x magnification. It’s a large and bright display that is easy to use even when the light is low.
Nikon has also created a vibrant 3.2in tilt-touchscreen. We made use of this screen for low-level shooting on several occasions. More so, shooting through live view for landscape photography works well because focus magnification makes it easier to ensure focusing is spot on.
In addition to the illuminated top LCD, the main buttons of the D850 can now be illuminated. We took the camera out in the night to take pictures of the stars and found this feature really useful. We’d otherwise be fiddling around the buttons with a torch in the mouth in order to see the controls.
Poetically, there has not been much noise about the D850’s new silent electronic shutter. Yet, we think it’s really useful. There are plenty of times when discretion is needed and the noise of a DSLR shutter can be especially intrusive or exposing.
Of course silent shutter is in live view mode only which is not where the AF system of the D850 performs best. However, you do get up to 30fps in the DX crop mode for low resolution 8.6MP images.
Our final highlight using the Nikon D850 is the wireless connectivity to the Nikon Snapbridge app on a smartphone. Honestly it’s not the best app and Nikon has a lot of improvements to add. However, it’s quite straight forward to transfer those amazing images onto your smartphone, with an option of setting the picture size to 2MP.
Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth has featured in cameras for a while now, but it’s still novel to share with the world those amazing landscape images taken moments before on a high-resolution DSLR.
Nikon D850: Video
• 4k video at 30fps with no sensor crop
• 1080p at 60fps
• Focus peaking and digital stabilisation in 1080p
• Slow motion mode up to 120fps at 1080p (1/4 speed)
• Microphone/ Headphone ports
The D850 represents Nikon’s most capable DSLR for video.
Unlike many other Nikon DSLRs, the 4K video mode is available with no sensor crop. You’ll get the most out of wide-angle lenses and the camera’s best possible performance in low light.
It’s not the crispest 4K video we have seen, but in comparison to the D810, video makers are well catered for. The specification for 1080p video recording is impressive. You get up to 60fps and slow motion up to 120fps, electronic stabilisation, microphone and headphone ports and full support for external recorders. It’s all there.
Video auto-focusing will continue to be a downside until Nikon develops some new AF tech for its DSLR cameras in live view mode.
Nikon D850: Price and accessories
For what the Nikon D850 can do, it’s RRP of $3,300 is actually very reasonable. After all, this is a professional-level camera that can cater for all kinds of photography.
Yet, to really get the most out of the camera, the body only is just the beginning. Sports photographers in particular will want to consider the MB-D18 battery grip, which costs $400. In addition there are a few options for additional batteries. The most powerful and expensive setup requires optional battery, charger and battery chamber which adds a further $700.
When you add all these items up it gets quite expensive, but it’s still a lot cheaper than buying one dedicated camera for landscape photography and another for sports.
Finally, the current wave of high-resolution Nikon lenses being launched that should get the most out of high-resolution cameras like the D850 are not cheap at all.
Nikon D850: Verdict
Right now, it’s hard to think of a more capable DSLR for photographers than the Nikon D850. It’s a contender for camera of the year.
Top 8 reasons to love the Nikon D850
• Excellent dynamic range
• High-resolution and sharp detail (in the right hands)
• New silent shooting mode
• Nikon’s largest viewfinder
• Vibrant and responsive LCD tilt-touchscreen
• Insanely good battery life
• Nikon’s best AF system
• Improved handling and build quality
What’s not to like about the Nikon D850
• It becomes expensive when factoring in accessories
• Live View Auto Focusing lags behind the competition
• No Built-in Flash
• Nikon SnapBridge is not the best app