Nikon D850 Hands-On Review

The Amazing Nikon D850

My hands-on, non-techincal, totally subjective review
Nikon D850 Review
Sunset at Bandon Beach, Oregon captured with the Nikon D850

I’ve had the Nikon D850 for about a month now, and I’ve been able to use it on two of my landscape photo safaris so far. I figured then it’s time for a Nikon D850 review! I want to briefly present my impressions with this camera based on my experience in the field. I’ve previously shot with both a Nikon D800E and Nikon D810. This is my subjective review of how the Nikon D850 DSLR camera has impacted my photography. I’m sure others will post detailed technical reviews of noise, dynamic range, etc. I’ll leave that to the technical geeks and instead focus on my personal experiences with this new camera.

Build and Handling

To me, the build quality of the D850 feels better than my D810. I personally love the decision by Nikon to eliminate the pop-up flash on this camera in favor of better weather sealing and the larger viewfinder. The D850 has also had some ergonomic design tweaks. The grip depth is perfect for my hand, and the addition of the sub-selector (mini joystick) on the rear of the D850 brings the control layout in line with the other two flagship Nikons, the D5 and D500. As such, the exposure mode button is now on the top left of the body, as the ISO button now resides at top right.

If you have more than one Nikon body, it can get a little confusing to re-train your brain to the new button locations. On the plus side, nearly every button on the D850 can be customized to your liking in the (f) section of the Custom Setting Menu. For example, I configured the Video Record button to be used as exposure mode selection. Now I have that button right at my fingertips as I did with my previous Nikon bodies.

Viewfinder

The first thing that struck me about the D850 was the amazing viewfinder. It’s listed as the largest magnification viewfinder in a DSLR at 0.75x and 100% coverage, and I was immediately impressed. I mean, it really is impressive. Despite all the wonderful features of using Live View, I still prefer to compose my images through a traditional viewfinder. You can customize the viewfinder to include a grid overlay as well as crop area masking.

Illuminated Controls

I loved the illuminated control buttons on my old D4. When you’re shooting at night, it’s a huge bonus to be able to see what you’re doing on the camera without using a flashlight. I’m glad this feature has made its way into the D850.

Tilting Touch-Screen LCD

Nikon added a tilting rear LCD panel to the D850, similar to the one in the D500. I love this feature. When I shoot low-angle macros such as wildflowers, having an articulating LCD is fantastic. It’s one of the reasons I’d sometimes opt to shoot with my Nikon D750 for those subjects. If I wanted to be picky, I’d wish for Nikon to implement a dual-pivot design to make using the LCD in portrait (vertical) orientation easier, too. But I digress…

The LCD display by itself is incredible. It offers nearly twice the pixels as the D810, meaning you simply don’t see any dots. It also delivers rich colors and fantastic sharpness. My images seem to just pop off the back of this camera when I review them!

The other huge feature with the D850’s LCD is that it’s a touch screen. Nikon offered touch LCD panels before, but the D850 takes it a step further by allowing you to access and modify menu items using the touch panel. This feature makes things like changing your file naming or setting up the copyright information super easy! You can use the touch screen to scroll and zoom images during image review, too. The other nice feature is using the touch screen in Live View to focus the camera and also release the shutter. Talk about easy focus-stacking for landscapes! I just touch the screen on the area of the image I want to focus on, and the camera focuses and shoots.

Autofocus

Nikon added its newest autofocus module to the D850. The Multi-CAM 20k module delivers 153 autofocus points, and a detection range of -4 to +20EV. The D810 offered autofocus sensitivity of -2 to +19EV. Not only will the D850 autofocus in a huge range of lighting conditions, 15 of the AF sensors (9 of which are selectable) support shooting at apertures of f/8. That means you can still get reasonable focus when using a 2x teleconverter on an f/4 lens like the 70-200mm f/4 VR. I haven’t really tested this in the real world yet, but I did get reasonable results with that combo on the D810, so I expect it to be even better on the D850.

In terms of use, the autofocus options are identical to the D500, but the D850 does now include a 9-point dynamic mode. I think it’s going to be great for wildlife shooting where I want to use the smallest possible cluster of AF points on subjects like birds. I found that the 25-point grouping on the D500 was often too large to use reliably on smaller subjects.

Image Quality
Nikon D850 review
Daybreak in the South Dakota Badlands, captured with the Nikon D850.

Image quality… that’s the real question, right? When I saw that Nikon had increased the resolution of the D850 to over 45 megapixels (8256 x 5504), my first question was “how will the dynamic range hold up?” Well, subjectively I can say that the D850 delivers the goods. Detail is amazing, colors are rich, and noise is extremely well-controlled. The images, if processed properly, simply pop off of your screen!

When I processed landscape shots from the D850, I felt that I had the same ability to pull up the shadow details as I’d had with the D810 prior. Moreover, I don’t see any weird color shifts when I pull the shadows in D850 images. In situations where I needed to create a HDR bracket, I was usually able to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene with only 2 shots, spaced 2 or 3 EV apart.

File Sizes

With the D850, you can shoot six variants of full-size (45.4 MP) RAW images:

  • 14-bit or 12-bit depth
  • Uncompressed, lossless compressed, or lossy compressed.

A 14-bit uncompressed NEF image file comes in at 98.7 MB. Compressed (lossy) NEFs are 52.6 MB, and lossless compressed are 66.4 MB. I usually set my camera to 14-bit lossless compressed NEF format. In 12-bit mode, an uncompressed NEF is 75.7MB. A lossless compressed 12-bit NEF is 50.6MB, and a lossy compressed NEF is 45.8MB. While I don’t usually shoot in 12-bit mode these days, you do get a fair bit of space savings. Based on this analysis by Photons to Photos, 12-bit D850 RAW files may have a noise advantage, too. Because D850 RAW files are large, I’d recommend having at least 32GB memory cards, and preferably 64GB. Action shooters will probably want to opt for 128GB or larger cards.

Medium and Small RAW Formats

The Nikon D850 allows you to shoot a smaller size RAW file, too. These are always captured in 12-bit depth and will have some compression applied. You can choose from Medium (25.5 MP) or Small (11.3 MP). Unlike the small RAWs in the D810, it appears that these formats are an actual RAW file format, and in some cases may actually offer an advantage in terms of noise control.

ISO Performance
Nikon D850 Review
Milky Way over the South Dakota Badlands with the Nikon D850

The ISO performance of the D850 is also outstanding, especially considering the massive resolution. What I found to be amazing was how well the color fidelity held up throughout the entire in-spec ISO range (64-25,600). I used the D850 for some night sky photography in South Dakota, and the images were just wonderful at ISO 1600 with my 20mm f/1.8 Nikkor. So my take-home message here is that if you’re used to shooting with the D800 or D810, the D850 delivers images that are easily as good with a higher pixel count. Photographers who make their living at the upper end of the ISO scale will still probably gravitate towards the Nikon D5, but that’s a very elite set of circumstances in my opinion.

Other Cool Features of the Nikon D850

The D850 has a ton of nice features, and I probably won’t use them all (like video). But, in my time with this camera, here are some of the things I’ve discovered that I have tried and liked.

Auto White Balance Options

The D850 offers a revamped set of options for Auto White Balance. Each one differs in the amount of warm tones that are corrected. A0 tries to neutralize all warm tones, while A1 gives a more natural look. A2 is slightly warmer still. There’s also now a Auto/Daylight WB setting, which when used indoors produces colors that are even warmer than A2. The image series below illustrates this clearly:

Nikon D850 Auto (0) WB
Nikon D850 Auto (1) WB
Nikon D850 Auto (2) WB
Nikon D850 Auto (daylight) WB 
Silent Live View Mode

When enabled, you can now use live view entirely with electronic shutter options. It’s a little weird at first because there is absolutely NO SOUND produced by the camera in this mode. There’s two release modes for silent shooting. The first mode captures full-frame images in whichever quality (RAW/JPEG) you have set. The second mode captures 8 megapixel (3600×2400) JPEG images in DX crop mode at either 15 (CL) or 30 (CH) frames per second. There’s your chance to shoot golfers on their backswing without getting kicked off the course!

4k Timelapse Videos

The D850 can now shoot time-lapse videos at up to 4k (3840 x 2160) resolution. You will find the time-lapse video option in the Movie Menu. On previous cameras, time-lapse video settings were in the shooting menu. Keep in mind that if you use this mode, the camera will be capturing images at a 16:9 aspect ratio, so you’ll want to compose your shot using Live View Movie mode. I still tend to capture full-frame time-lapse sequences using the built-in intervalometer for creative effects like Cloud-Stacking.

Focus Stacking (Focus Shift Shooting)

You’ve probably heard that the Nikon D850 has a focus stack feature built in (called focus-shift shooting in the Shooting Menu). This new shooting mode won’t blend your images (you still need software for that), but you can set it up to take as many as 300 shots with equal focus spacing. In this mode, the camera will start from the initial focus point and then focus out to infinity. I’m sure studio/macro photographers will love this feature, but it’s a little too cumbersome to use in the field for landscapes. The focus distance interval is based on an arbitrary (but adjustable) scale, so you really don’t know how far apart each shot will be. I’ll leave that stuff to the tech geeks to figure out.

Crop Modes

The Nikon D850 now includes a square (1:1) crop mode to go with the 1.2x, 1.5x (DX) and 5:4 crops. While I’m not usually into square pictures (other than Instagram), the massive resolution of the D850 makes using the other crop modes extremely viable. For example, you get a 31.5 megapixel image with 1.2x crop, and 19.4 megapixels at DX crop. This means that the D850 in DX crop mode is virtually the same resolution as the Nikon D500 (20.6 MP). You can see where I’m going here… the D850’s resolution allows you to use your lenses in crop mode without giving up too much in terms of resolution. That means your 24-70mm lens can effectively become a 24-105mm lens as long as you’re willing to live with a 20 megapixel image (hint: you probably are).

XQD and SD card slots

Nikon is finally going mainstream with their adoption of the XQD card format. I love these cards. They are a little smaller than CF cards, but still far more robust than the SD form factor. But where XQD cards really kick butt is in their read/write speeds. The second generation XQD cards (Sony G series or Lexar* 2933x) not only allow the frame buffer to be cleared incredibly fast. For full-frame images in 14-bit RAW mode, the camera indicates a buffer capacity of 15 shots. In reality, I was able to shoot 40 continuous frames at 7fps before the buffer filled. When I ran the same test in 12-bit RAW, I was able to get 94 continuous frames before anything slowed down.

*In 2017, the Lexar brand was discontinued 

On the back end of your workflow, XQD cards allow you to download your images incredibly quickly, provided that you use a fast USB 3.0 card reader. In my tests, the transfer rate with my XQD cards was limited by my hard drive write speed, not the card. If you have a RAID array or solid-state drive, you’ll be downloading images ridiculously quickly. In the field, I was downloading a full shoot of 8-10GB worth of files in about three minutes to my SSD-equipped MacBook Pro. What I’d really like to see is a D850 with dual XQD slots, but one can still make the case that SD cards are viable due to their near universal adoption.

Who Needs a D500?
Nikon D850 Review
Backyard hawk captured with the Nikon D850 and 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR Nikkor lens

If you’re willing to spend the extra $1300, the D850 literally combines the D810 with the D500. As I said before, in DX crop mode the D850 delivers 19.4 megapixels against the 20.6 in the D500. With the optional MB-D18 battery grip, you get 9fps from the D850 versus 10fps in the D500 (no grip required). If you use fast, second-generation XQD cards, you’ll get a 200 shot buffer with the D850 in DX crop mode; identical to the D500. In FX mode, the D850’s buffer is around 51 shots (still plenty for nearly everyone).

Conclusion: The do-everything Nikon

When Nikon released the D800 in 2012, we were all blown away by the incredible image quality. While the 36 megapixel resolution was tremendous (all prior Nikon DSLRs had maxed out at 12 megapixels), it was the color richness and dynamic range where the D800 series of cameras really outshined their peers. With each iteration of the D8xx series, Nikon delivers design and performance improvements while keeping the image quality in the league of some medium-format cameras. In my view, the Nikon D850 is less about the sensor (which is fantastic), but more about the package that surrounds it.

With fast 7fps shooting, lighting quick AF, a tilting touch LCD and a control layout that matches the D5 and D500, the Nikon D850 is, literally, the only camera most of us will ever need. The D850 will nail pretty much every subject you can think of, from studio portraits to action and wildlife. At this point, if you haven’t already put yourself on the pre-order list for one, you may find yourself waiting awhile to get your hands on this masterpiece from Nikon.

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