The Nikon D850 brought a huge breath of fresh air into the Nikon lineup. So well-received was this camera that it remained backordered for nearly a year. Why the strong demand? While many individual improvements created demand for this camera, it is the overall combination of new and highly-desired features that make the D850 a must-have Nikon DSLR. This feature-filled camera is very well designed and built, has impressive ultra-high resolution image quality and, with the battery grip, delivers that image quality at 9 fps with impressive-performing AF ensuring that those images are sharp.
As we began planning for another strong Nikon lens testing push, I felt compelled to take that testing to the highest level possible. Most recently, we had been using a 33.6 MP Nikon D810 for that testing, but the 45.7 MP resolution of the Nikon D850 provides significantly greater magnification making lens flaws more-easily visible. At the very least, that sounded like a good excuse to try out the D850, determining if all the hype was warranted or if it was only a small flame being fanned.
When the Canon EOS 5Ds and 5Ds R were introduced, I fell in love with ultra-high resolution full frame image quality. The amount of detail available in these images is incredible and high resolution remains even after heavy cropping, meaning that I can frame slightly wider to ensure that moving subjects stay in the frame yet still have images with enough resolution for large reproduction. Of course, the background blur that a full frame camera can deliver is itself addicting as is the low noise level. While the Nikon D850 falls short of the EOS 5Ds/5Ds R's resolution, the difference is small enough that few will regard it as significant and very few will be disappointed by the detail available in Nikon D850 images.
|Canon EOS R||1.0x||36.0 x 24.0mm||5.36µm||6720 x 4480||30.3||.71x||100%||f/8.6|
|Canon EOS 6D Mark II||1.0x||35.9 x 24.0mm||5.75µm||6240 x 4160||26.2||.71x||98%||f/9.3|
|Canon EOS 5Ds / 5Ds R||1.0x||36.0 x 24.0mm||4.14µm||8688 x 5792||50.6||.71x||100%||f/6.7|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||1.0x||36.0 x 24.0mm||5.36µm||6720 x 4480||30.4||.71x||100%||f/8.6|
|Nikon Z 7||1.0x||35.9 x 23.9mm||4.35µm||8256 x 5504||45.7||.80x||100%||f/7.0|
|Nikon Z 6||1.0x||35.9 x 23.9mm||5.98µm||6000 x 4000||24.5||.80x||100%||f/9.6|
|Nikon D850||1.0x||35.9 x 23.9mm||4.35µm||8256 x 5504||45.7||.75x||100%||f/7.0|
|Sony a7R III||1.0x||35.9 x 24.0mm||4.5µm||7952 x 5304||42.4||.78x||100%||f/7.2|
|Sony a7 III||1.0x||35.6 x 23.8mm||5.9µm||6000 x 4000||24.2||.78x||100%||f/9.6|
Motion blur is caused by scene details crossing over pixels during the exposure. The smaller and denser the pixels are on the imaging sensor, the more they magnify that movement, meaning that good technique and adequate shutter speeds are needed to get the most from such cameras. Those moving from the 36 MP Nikon D800 and D810 models will notice a small bump in such requirements while those moving from twenty-something MP full frame cameras will need to pay especially close attention to avoiding motion blur. This is just a small learning hurdle required to make the most of a high resolution sensor and images can always be down-sized to older model pixel dimensions with no-worse-than the older models results. Note that some APS-C format sensors have similar or higher pixel densities. Also note that the D850 has an improved shutter and mirror system designed for reduced vibrations.
With diffraction beginning to be noticeable at f/7 (when viewing at 100% resolution on a display), the resolution advantage becomes lesser at narrow apertures. This does not mean that narrower apertures should be avoided, but discernment should be made when choosing them. Do not expect sharp results at f/22.
The Nikon D850 resolution looks quite impressive with the Nikon 600mm f/4E AF-S FL ED VR Lens in front of it. For your entertainment, I plugged a Canon EOS 5Ds R into that comparison. Those comparing against the Canon and Sony systems can also select the Canon EOS R, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Sony a7 III in the right-side camera selection box.
Note that the D850 does not have an optical low pass (anti-aliasing) filter. Especially at this resolution, moiré has not been a problem with this camera.
Noise levels are always an image quality concern and our simple Kodak Color Control Patches test illuminates this factor. This test involves a rather boring subject that requires a huge amount of setup time to photograph and hours of processing to publish each camera test. Sensor technology improvements (including onboard circuitry) implemented by sensors seldom show up on a specification chart, but they do show up in the color block pictures.
These noise test results are captured in RAW format and processed in Nikon's Capture NX-D. The Standard Picture Control is selected with sharpness = 1. The other parameters are zeroed and key is that noise reduction is disabled. Noise reduction can be performed to any image during post production, so the primary concern is getting a clean, low noise image to start with and that is what these tests focus on. While noise reduction can improve an image, noise reduction can be (and usually is) destructive to fine detail and this is why lower noise is better to start with. My strategy is to apply light noise reduction only when needed and I do this only during post processing of RAW images.
Ctrl-click on the link to open that page in a new tab, saving your place here.
When using the comparison feature of the site's camera noise tool, let your eyes tell you the results. The even colors found in these test charts make noise very apparent relative to most real life subjects as detail in a scene will hide noise much better. If you can't readily discern a difference in any color block comparison, it is unlikely that you will be able to recognize the difference in real world results.
This camera offers an ISO range of 64 - 25600 with extended settings of 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, or 1 EV (ISO 32 equivalent) below ISO 64 and to approx. 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, 1, or 2 EV (ISO 102400 equivalent) above ISO 25600. Those numbers reflect a 1-stop improvement over the D810.
The base ISO setting, 64 in this case, produces an extremely clean, low noise result and ISO 100 is essentially the same. If other factors did not warrant differently, these would be the two ISO settings always selected. Other factors of course warrant faster ISO speeds and the D850 issues little noise penalty through ISO 400.
At ISO 800, noise is becoming perceptible in smoothly-colored areas of the frame. Noise continues to increase with levels becoming apparent at ISO 1600 and by ISO 3200, you are going to notice the noise, though ISO 3200 images are generally quite usable to me. Noise levels at ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 head deeper into the bothersome range, but ... with some noise reduction added, they can be usable, especially when viewed at less than 100% resolution. ISO 25600 images are starting to appear ugly, with significant noise reduction and reduced final output size being keys to this setting's usability.
Results from settings over ISO 25600, the extended range, have very low usability, aside from the arguably deceptive marketing/bragging rights aspect. Just because the feature is present doesn't mean that you should use it. Who would use an image that looks like this (ISO 102400)?
Perhaps there are surveilance operations that might be able to pull something out of that image, but ... I'm uncertain this image quality is even good enough for that purpose. On the other end is ISO 32, a low-extended setting that produces a very clean result. Still, ISO 32 is not without limitations.
Overall, in regards to noise performance, the Nikon D850 competes at the top of its class. If you use the site's noise comparion tool, you will notice that the Nikon Z 7 with its similar imaging sensor is turning in noticeably-cleaner results. Nikon's Capture NX-D software very strongly appears to be applying noise reduction to the Z 7 images despite all noise reduction being disabled.
Six sets of included noise tests were captured with exposure variances ranging from -3 to +3 stops, with all adjusted to the base exposure during post processing. The overexposed images adjusted to be darker show the ability of the imaging sensor to recover highlights and the brightened underexposed images show the increased noise penalty incurred by this process, especially in the shadows.
The 1-stop overexposed results show little deficit in the brightest white block (approximately R,G,B = 225), though auto white balance was off. At 2 stops of overexposure, the brightest colors have been impacted slightly and image quality falls apart at 3 stops of overexposure. This performance is quite good, though slightly short of what we see from the Sony a7R III in comparison.
I mentioned that ISO 32 has limitations and that is in dynamic range. When using this setting, use caution to avoid any overexposure as there is little headroom on the bright end to work with (brightening ISO 32 shadows works better). ISO 32 has only slight benefit over ISO 64 exposed 1 stop brighter and then corrected. Ultra-low ISO settings, acting similar to ND filters, are very useful when using ultra-wide apertures under bright light and when motion blur is desired.
While I seldom want to underexpose an image in-camera, doing so with the D850 results in little noise difference relative to using the needed ISO setting in the first place, even at the -3 stops difference shared in this example. The D850 provides excellent latitude for boosting shadow brightness.
Additional image sets available in the noise comparison tool include images captured in JPG format using the default Standard Picture Control settings. These results show that Nikon is normal among camera manufacturers: people like sharp images even when using a lens that is not sharp and Nikon gives them that. But, this over-sharpening is destructive to image quality. Note the bright halos in the periphery of each color block. Get a good lens and turn down the sharpening.
Another set of JPG-captured images are included, these showing the results of the in-camera "Normal" noise reduction. The difference is quite noticeable. Regarding high ISO noise, you can have smooth or you can have detailed. Pick one. While perhaps not as black and white as that scenario implies, the amount of noise reduction applied to an image requires consideration of the overall concept. The amount of noise reduction ideally applied to an image is not necessarily directly dependent on the ISO setting alone. You may find that some subjects take noise reduction better than others. As a generalization, I prefer a low amount of noise reduction when ISO settings producing noticeable noise are used.
All of Nikon's interchangeable lens cameras provide a wide range of noise reduction, sharpness and other image quality setting adjustments, enabling you to dial the results into perfection. That these settings can be adjusted in-camera is particularly important for those requiring compressed JPG format images right out of the camera (without using the camera's own RAW image conversion capabilities).
The image quality of the Nikon D850 is, overall, impressive.
An ultra-high resolution image will get a correspondingly high file size. The following table shows comparative RAW file sizes for a photo of a standard in-studio setup with a moderately-high amount of detail taken with the referenced camera. The lossless compressed RAW format was used for the Nikon results.
|Model / File Size in MB @ ISO:||(MP)||100||200||400||800||1600||3200||6400||12800||25600||51200||102400||204800||409600|
|Canon EOS R||(30.4)||35.8||36.6||37.6||38.7||40.0||41.8||43.3||45.7||48.0||49.6*||**||**|
|Canon EOS 5Ds||(50.6)||64.7||65.7||66.9||69.2||72.5||76.6||81.6||88.1|
|Canon EOS 5Ds R||(50.6)||65.2||66.4||67.6||69.8||73.0||77.2||81.9||88.4|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||(30.4)||38.8||39.1||39.6||40.4||41.6||43.5||45.5||48.0||51.4||55.1||59.8|
|Nikon Z 7||(45.7)||59.1||59.7||61.1||62.7||64.6||67.5||70.6||74.4||78.6||83.1||87.2|
|Nikon Z 6||(24.5)||32.1||32.2||32.6||33.3||34.1||35.1||36.4||37.9||39.5||42.3||44.4||47.2|
|Sony a7R III||(42.4)||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||81.9||82.0||82.0||82.0|
|Sony a7 III||(24.2)||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.1||47.2||47.2||47.2|
Nikon's compression algorithm appears to be working well, producing similar efficiency as Canon's and producing significantly smaller file sizes compared to Sony. For an ISO 100 RAW image, you can roughly estimate 1.2MB per megapixel for file size. Lossy compression and 12-bit (vs. 14-bit) options, smaller RAW sizes of Medium (25.6 MP) and Small (11.4 MP), and a variety of JPG file sizes and qualities are available when smaller files sizes are warranted and the uncompressed RAW and .TIFF formats provide a larger file size.
The Nikon D850 writes image files, simultaneously or sequentially, to an SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II) memory card and an XQD memory card. While switching to the XQD memory card format has a cost factor and no laptops feature built-in XQD card readers, I do like this format. In addition to being fast, the XQD standard has a rugged design, including the connection, and a compact form factor. The SD option will be found favorable by those upgrading from a camera utilizing this long-time favorite format (though it may be time to upgrade to new cards for reliability reasons).
I always recommend rotating through cards until, minimally, you are able to get the images safely into your formal backup strategy (which includes off-site storage). Reinforcing this importance was the failure of a 5TB external drive I experienced while creating this review (no important data was lost and the drive is being replaced under warranty, but time and frustration were the losses).
A strong reason to select this camera is the high-speed continuous shooting rate it provides.
|Model||FPS||Max JPG||Max RAW||Shutter Lag||VF Blackout|
|Canon EOS R||2.2-8||100||34/47||50ms||n/a|
|Canon EOS 6D Mark II||6.5||200||18/21||60ms|
|Canon EOS 5Ds / 5Ds R||5.0||31/Full||12/14||59ms||125ms|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||7.0||Full||17||58ms||86ms|
|Nikon Z 7||8/9||25||18/23||n/a||n/a|
|Nikon Z 6||9/12|| ||n/a||n/a||n/a|
|Sony a7R III||10.0||76||28||20ms||n/a|
|Sony a7 III||10.0||40||163|
For a camera with this resolution, a full-featured (note that cameras seem to have an increasing number of conditions applied to their max-rated frame rates) 7 fps rate is quite good and the 9 fps rate is really impressive. Along with resolution, the frame rate was a primary motivator for me to purchase this model. However, getting to the 9 fps rate has a significant cost involved.
Required for the faster rate is the Nikon MB-D18 Multi-Power Battery Pack with a Nikon EN-EL18c Rechargeable Battery and Nikon BL-5 Battery Chamber Cover (the Nikon MH-26aAK Adapter Kit will also be needed). Far less expensive third-party options are available, but heed caution. Reportedly, not all will reliably provide the 9 fps rate and build quality, including weather sealing, may be compromised, creating reliability issues.
A third-party battery chamber cover is likely not a big risk, but the Nikon version is also not very expensive. I still do not trust third-party batteries. I'm sure that some good ones exist, but picking a bad one can lead to huge liability and safety issues. However, I confess to taking the cost-savings route with a well-rated Wasabi brand charger. The $300.00+ difference in charger cost was more than I could bear and the Wasabi is working fine so far.
To test the Nikon D850's 7 / 9 fps drive mode and buffer capability, the camera was configured to capture 14-bit lossless-compressed RAW files in manual mode (no AE time lag) using ISO 100, a 1/8000 shutter speed (no waiting for the shutter operation), a wide open aperture (no time lost due to aperture blades closing) and manual focus (no focus lock delay). Nearly all enhancements were disabled (such as lens corrections). The lens cap remained on (insuring a black image with the smallest file size) and a freshly-formatted fast memory card was loaded.
Using a fast Delkin Devices Prime UHS-II (V60) SDXC Memory Card, the D850 captured 25 frames in 3.34 seconds for a 7.19 fps rate, slightly surpassing the rated drive speed but falling well short of the rated buffer size. After a pause, additional frames were captured roughly every 0.45 seconds.
Using a fast Sony 128GB G-Series XQD Memory Card, the D850 captured 24 frames in 3.21 seconds for a 7.17 fps rate, again surpassing the rated drive speed but falling well short of the rated buffer size. Using this card, additional frames were captured at a considerably faster rate than with the SDXC card. Though random pauses occurred, 38 images were captured in 6.39 seconds for a still-good sustained 5.9 fps post-buffer-filled rate.
Mount the MB-D18 Multi-Power Battery Pack with a EN-EL18c battery and watch the 9 fps indicator display (press the info button). Repeating the same tests resulted in the following results.
The SDXC card resulted in 22 frames captured in 2.25 seconds for a 9.33 fps rate. After a pause, additional frames were captured roughly every 0.45 seconds.
Using the XQD Memory Card, the D850 captured 20 frames in 2.04 seconds for a 9.31 fps rate. With random pauses occurring, 32 images were captured in 5.39 seconds for a sustained 5.9 fps post-buffer-filled rate.
These buffer capacities should be considered best-possible for the camera settings and referenced cards and your in-the-field results will likely vary. Here are some takeaways: First and most glaring is that my setup does not come close the rated RAW buffer spec, taken directly from the owner's manual. There may be a setting preventing my camera from reaching the rated specs, but I can't find it (and spent a considerable amount of time searching for a reason). There are a large number of variables affecting buffer depth, but the size of the files being captured are a very significant factor. My results more-closely associate with Nikon's published spec for Uncompressed 14-bit RAW capture.
Adding the MB-D18 noticeably increases the frame rate, but does not increase the write speed, meaning that slightly fewer images get written to the card during the burst capture and the buffer fills with a lower number of images being captured. A fast XQD card does not result in a larger buffer depth compared to a fast SD card, but it delivers a very-significantly-faster post-buffer-fill frame rate.
Especially for the resolution of its images, the rated (and tested) frame rates are very impressive. The buffer depth I experienced is ... reasonable. A camera with this frame rate (especially the 9 fps rate) is a very good option for capturing sports action and while a 2 or 3-second buffer will cover a great many action scenarios, that figure is not high enough for the most demanding sports and other action photography. I'm finding the D850's frame rate and buffer to be excellent for wildlife, a subject often in motion. Using the XQD card provides a still-good post-buffer-full frame rate.
It seems that the longer I photograph, the more frequently I am using high-speed burst mode. For sports action, this decision is a no-brainer and similarly so for wildlife. But, this mode also proves useful in portraiture, capturing that perfect image with no blinking or just the right hint of smile (simply shooting a burst of images can make a person smile). Burst mode is useful for wildlife portraits even when the animal appears to be still as blinks, funny mouth positions associated with eating and chewing cud, blowing flora and other motions can be more ideal in one frame than an immediately thereafter-captured one and little improvements can mean the difference between an average image and a great one.
Here is an example of the 9 fps rate:
Fast also describes the D850 memory card formatting speed. This speed feature is especially appreciated in the field.
Nikon does not publish the shutter lag for this camera, but it is pro-sports-action-ready (very short). This camera makes timing a shot easy, relatively speaking.
The D850 features a 30-1/8000 second shutter speed range with settings available in 1/3, 1/2 or full 1 stop increments (plus Bulb). The max flash sync speed is 1/250.
With the optical viewfinder in use, this camera announces the photographer's presence during image capture. The D850's mirror and shutter sounds are not stealthy, but the "Silent live view photography" mode can be used for absolute silent capture. Following are links to MP3 files capturing Nikon D850 sounds (the non-silent ones of course).
Camera sounds are recorded using a Tascam DR-07mkII Portable Digital Audio Recorder with record levels set to 50% at -12db gain and positioned 1" behind the rear LCD.
Again, the D850 also offers Silent live view photography with, at most, only lens sounds (such as the aperture stopping down) being slightly audible. Among the downsides of using an electronic shutter is the current-technology line-by-line reading of the imaging sensor data. Fast side-to-side subject or camera movement will result in an angular-shifted image with vertically straight lines becoming noticeably slanted (with the camera in horizontal orientation).
This camera has a lot going for it and AF performance is one of its best features. The D850 shares the Nikon D5's AF system, featuring an AF point count of 153, the review-time highest-available in a DSLR with a mirror down. That count is up from 51 in the D810. While there are 153 AF points, only 55 of them are available for selection. If 55 points are still too many, a menu options allows that number to be reduced to 15, allowing quicker AF point selections over a large area.
The total cross-type sensor count is 99, of which 35 are available for selection. See page 94 in the owner's manual for a list of variances, primarily based on the lens in use. After recently reviewing several mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, none with cross-type sensors, I am especially aware of the significant benefit cross-type sensors provide. If the lines of contrast on a subject go in the wrong direction, this feature makes the difference between instantly focusing and a failure-to-focus scenario following a long AF hunt process.
The points in the gray areas of the above Nikon AF point diagram are the cross-type points (for most modern Nikon lenses). When using the non-cross-type points, lines of vertical contrast will not be visible to the AF system, including when groups of them are selected.
In general, lens and lens plus teleconverter combinations with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 are supported by all AF points and 15 AF points (9 selectable) support AF with an f/8 max aperture, most often encountered with lens and teleconverter combinations. Those pursuing bird and wildlife photography, two of the most common uses for teleconverters, will especially appreciate the f/8 support.
This AF system has a working range of EV-4 to EV 20. The EV-4 spec is quite impressive but at least with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E AF-S FL VR (my widest aperture test lens), I wasn't totally blown away by the D850's ability to obtain AF lock in ultra-low light scenarios. However, it does perform very well from a relative standpoint.
As usual, the D850 makes a range of focus areas available. The ubiquitous Single-point AF provides a small, single AF point that gives the photographer ideal control over the focus precision – when the focus point can be properly positioned (most often with a still subject).
Group-area AF allows the photographer to select a mid-sized group of AF points for the camera to locate a subject within and, in AF-S focus mode, face detection priority can be activated. Auto-area AF gives the camera the freedom to use any available AF point for subject locating and again, in AF-S focus mode, face detection priority can be activated.
Single-point, Auto-area and Group-area modes complete the list for options in AF-S AF mode. AF-C continuous AF mode, expecting a moving subject, enables more options.
The 9, 25, 72, or 153 point Dynamic-area AF modes provide additional AF points around the selected AF points. Note that these counts include non-selectable points. Choose these modes when the primary AF point cannot be held on the subject (fast and/or erratic movement) and/or when the primary AF point does not have enough contrast to determine focus and needs help from the surrounding AF points. I encountered the latter scenario recently while photographing whitetail deer in thick fog. Activating the 9-point Dynamic-area AF mode was all that was needed to go from major focus hunting to quickly locking.
The D850's 3D-tracking AF mode has garnered a lot of respect. 3D-tracking utilizes an initial focus point to locate the subject and then attempts to track that subject throughout the available focus points. This mode is ideal for erratically-moving subjects.
The 3D-tracking mode can also alleviate a focus point on the wrong side of the frame being selected. An issue I often encounter when photographing wildlife is that, when the animal turns its head, I need to select a focus point on the complete opposite side of the frame. This takes time and great shots can be missed while pressing the sub-selector (joystick) to obtain the ideal AF point. In 3D mode, the already-selected AF point (the center point perhaps) can be placed on the animal's eye and AF activated (half shutter release press or AF-ON button). The camera will then track the eye as the image is recomposed in the viewfinder.
Changing the D850's AF modes require the button in the center of the AF/MF switch, located to the side of the lens mount, recessed on the left side of the camera, to be held in while the main and sub-command dials adjust AF-S/AF-C and area modes respectively. I find this button difficult to find among the other bumps and features located nearby and once found, the button is not easy to press due to the lack of clearance from the front of the body. Especially for a feature that I want to change with some frequency, this adjustment is a bit awkward overall.
I say it over and over again, but it is very a important concept: If the photo is not properly focused, the best camera and lens image quality in the world is not going to save that image. A camera's image quality simply doesn't matter if the subject is out of focus. This camera's AF system is very fast at least as accurate as any DSLR camera AF system I've used and that statement includes the D850's action-tracking capabilities. It is well-suited for sports and wildlife action. I'm impressed.
Less impressive is the D850's live view AF system. The AF accuracy I've experienced with the mirror up is rather poor and without the help of on-sensor phase-detection AF, this system is rather slow.
In regards to contemporary interchangeable lens cameras, we expect high-end video features to be included. In this case, the Nikon D850, generally speaking, does not disappoint. A selection of the video features found in the D850 include:
Available formats and framerates are as follows:
MP4/MOV 4K [3840 x 2160px]: 30/25/24p at 144 Mbps
MP4/MOV FHD [1920 x 1080px]: 60/50 at 48/24 Mbps, 30/25/24p at 24/12 Mbps
MP4/MOV FHD [1920 x 1080px] Slow-Mo: 30/25p (4x), 24p (5x) at 29 Mbps
MP4/MOV FHD [1280 x 720px]: 60/50p at 24/12 Mbps
For non Slow-Mo movies, the max recording time is 29 minutes 59 seconds. For Slow-Mo movies, the max recording time is 3 minutes.
The additional resolution captured in 4K over Full HD recording is substantial. The illustration below demonstrates the difference between Full HD and 4K resolutions.
If outputting to 1080p, you can easily downsample the 4K video, crop the frame to provide a tighter angle of view, or even pan your FHD video within the confines of the 4K captured frame. You can also mimic zooming in and out of a scene to add even more production value to your 1080p movies.
Of course, creating 4K content is the primary benefit of purchasing a 4K-capable camera. 4K video offers more than 4x the resolution of Full HD, allowing for beautifully sharp and detail rich movies that will remain impressive on resolution-hungry devices. The difference is substantial.
To begin movie recording, simply rotate the Live View selector to the movie icon, press the Live View button to lift the mirror assembly and press the movie-record button located between the ISO button and camera power switch which encircles the shutter button. The D850 can either use the full sensor width for recording or a DX (1.5x) crop can be chosen to narrow a lens' field of view and obtain a more telephoto perspective.
In Slow-Mo (Slow-Motion) mode, the camera records in MP4 or MOV format and can be set to capture video that is 4 or 5x faster than normal, that, when played at normal speed, is useful for slowing down fast action events such as an athlete scoring a goal or a bride throwing the bouquet. Note that audio is not recorded in Slow-Mo mode.
And on the subject of audio, sound is recorded via the built-in, good quality, stereo microphone or alternately an external microphone using the 3.5mm mic jack.
The D850 can be set to record 4K video in-camera (via the memory card) and output uncompressed 4:2:2 8-bit video to the mini HDMI (to a compatible playback monitor or recorder). Alternately, the video can be output only to the mini HDMI by removing the memory card. Outputting video to an external recorder without a memory card installed enables a recording time that exceed the camera's native approx. 30 minute limit.
The D850 does not feature a stabilized sensor, but Electronic Vibration Reduction is available in recording modes other than 4K and Slow-Mo.
Focus peaking, a highly desirable feature for many filmmakers, is available in video mode. However, its usefulness is limited to specific video resolutions and frame rates, and enabling the feature precludes the use of other desirable features. For instance, focus peaking is not available in Slow-Mo or 4K recording, or when Highlight Display (zebras), Active D-Lighting or Electronic Vibration Reduction are enabled. Active D-Lighting, where the camera optimizes dynamic range for filming in high-contrast environments, has similar resolution and frame rate restrictions, although it can be enabled in conjunction with Highlight Display.
While on the subject of Highlight Display, filmmakers will appreciate that the D850 allows for selecting the specific brightness value (from 180 to 255) at which the zebra patterns will appear.
A Nikon D850 video performance weakness is its autofocus tracking. Especially due to the lack of on-sensor phase detection AF, the D850 suffers from noticeable focus hunting in AF-F (full-time servo AF) mode. Like most DSLR and mirrorless cameras in its class, you can easily select a subject to focus on by tapping the LCD screen. Manual focusing is, of course, a very good option with this camera.
The D850 exhibits moderate rolling shutter which is more pronounced when recording in 4K.
Overall, the Nikon D850 offers a solid array video features that will make it a very good option for filmmaking as long as continuous AF tracking is not a necessity.
The D850's metering modes, although very capable, can be a bit complicated. Matrix metering will be ideal for most situations. This mode provides 3D Color Matrix Metering III for type G, E, and D lenses, Color Matrix Metering III for other CPU lenses and Color Matrix Metering for non-CPU lenses if user provides lens data. Center-weighted metering provides 75% weight to an 8mm, 12mm, 15mm, or 20mm circle in center of frame with 12mm being the default and the option used for non-CPU lenses. Spot metering meters a 4mm circle, about 1.5% of frame, centered on the selected focus point or the center focus point when non-CPU lens is used. Highlight-weighted metering is the last option, available only with type G, E, and D lenses.
The D850's metering range is up to -3 - 20 EV using Matrix or Center-weighted metering, 2 - 20 EV with spot metering and 0 - 20 EV with Highlight-weighted metering.
The D850 features flicker reduction shooting with the ability to time the shutter release with the optimal brightness of flickering lights. This feature is a game changer for photographing in venues with fluorescent or mercury vapor lights.
The tone curve applied to the picture in camera is via the Picture Control with a vast range of options: Auto, Flat, Landscape, Monochrome, Neutral, Portrait, Standard, Vivid and Creative Picture Controls (Dream, Morning, Pop, Sunday, Somber, Dramatic, Silence, Bleached, Melancholic, Pure, Denim, Toy, Sepia, Blue, Red, Pink, Charcoal, Graphite, Binary, Carbon). Picture Controls can be modified and custom Picture Controls can be created.
Especially landscape photographers will appreciate the D850's generous AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) capabilities, featuring 2 to 9 frames in steps of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, 1, 2 or 3 EV. Options to capture 2 or 3-image brackets in one exposure direction (+ or - EV) are especially useful. Sometimes it is challenging to select the perfect middle exposure for a bracket and with this feature, the camera's primary exposure can be set, perhaps the darkest one with just a tiny portion of the frame being nearly overexposed, with the camera capturing the additionally-needed images. Notably missing is a way to capture a complete set of bracketed images with one shutter release press (holding down a shutter release, ideally that on a remote release, is required for the functionality). Please correct me if I'm wrong on that one, but that is what the manual tells me.
"Nikon’s Widest and Brightest Optical viewfinder: The 0.75x viewfinder magnification is the highest ever for a Nikon DSLR, and offers a wide and bright view of the frame to easily track and compose subjects." [Nikon USA]
The D850 has a big pentaprism viewfinder, featuring approx. 100% coverage (similar to Canon 5-series viewfinders in both regards). The viewfinder's LCD overlay makes a grid available and in dim light, red LEDs light the LCD display for easy visibility, including of AF points.
The D850's rear LCD is a 3.2" (81mm) 2,359,000-dot (nearly 2x as many dots as D810) tilting, touch-Sensitive, TFT LCD with a 170° viewing angle and 5-levels of manual brightness controls. It looks great and works very well. Touch to interact with the camera, including selecting menu options, choosing a focus point, accessing the i menu, changing settings, swiping and pinching during image review, etc. This is a full-featured touch implementation.
The LCD's double-hinged tilt feature is very useful for shooting high and low, but note that the limited range (just over 90° upward and nearly 90° downward) does not make the display visible from the front of the camera such as needed for selfie capture. The image quality of this LCD is excellent. The touch capabilities make changing camera settings easy, including via the reasonably-laid-out menu structure (I like Canon's typical menu structure a bit better and Sony's less) and also via the handy "i" button (showing the Quick Control screen). This LCD does not show finger and nose prints as readily some and when smudged, it easily wipes clean.
This camera has a rather small (and only modestly padded) eye cup that is nearly flush with the back of the camera, inviting those nose prints. A small lever to the upper-left of the viewfinder operates a viewfinder shutter.
A virtual horizon camera level indicator, a practically mandatory feature for me, is available in the viewfinder and on the rear LCD. The only method I've found to activate the viewfinder virtual horizon is by pressing a customized button, such as Fn1 on the front of the camera. The indicator is not the easiest to see or use and it does not stay activated when the camera is powered off.
The virtual horizon level indicator is much easier to see and use on the rear LCD, but its display is larger than it needs to be with the circle obscuring more of the scene than necessary. The rear LCD retains its level activation through power cycling.
Nikon has long been generous with the quantity of controls provided on their DSLR cameras and the design of this model stays that course as you will see in the next review sections.
I count 18 buttons and controls on the back of this camera. Certainly that is enough. Is it too many? I'm not finding that to be the case.
To compare the Nikon D850 with many other camera models, use the site's camera body comparison tool.
Starting at the top-left we have the Nikon-standard location for the playback and delete buttons. This location is easy to find and works well, but unlike the playback button position on some other brand cameras, this one requires the left hand to access.
To the left of the viewfinder are 6 buttons. The top-most button, the frequently-used menu option, is not hard to find. The bottom-most button, Fn2, is easy to find based on its location, slightly smaller size and the slight indentation it resides in. The OK button, just up from the Fn2 button, is findable without looking, but the rest of the buttons are rather indistinct and difficult to find without seeing them. There is a small bump beside the magnification button that can be found by running a bare (ungloved) finger along the back-left edge of the camera.
To the right of the viewfinder, we find the sub-selector (joystick) in a very convenient position. The joystick works well, though I frequently inadvertently select a press while attempting lateral adjustments.
The multi-selector is an 8-way (my preference) controller. I sometimes think a dial could be provided around this controller for additional convenience, though that would enlarge the space used, encroaching on the thumb rest area that is currently quite adequate. The outward-flared side of the thumb rest provides a sure grip on the camera. The main command dial, relatively narrow in diameter and protruding only modestly from the back of the camera is not my favorite design, but it works fine.
Below the multi-selector are the i and info buttons. While at first glance i and info seem to indicate the same function, pressing the i button provides a menu of camera setting options and pressing the info button displays camera setting information. Below these two buttons is the live view button with the still/video selector switch surrounding it. Controls located below the multi-selector are difficult to reach without the camera supported by the left hand. This is normal for controls located in this area, but consideration should be given in this regard.
The camera body top view comparison tool allows comparison of many additional Camera models. Starting at the top right, with the power switch located in front of the shutter release, power changes are easy while holding the camera with one hand. I'm still trying to decide if I like the LCD light switch being a 3rd, spring-loaded toggle position on the power switch but I love that the left-side buttons and those on the mode dial light up when this light is enabled. This feature alleviates any button location issues in the dark.
The ISO button location makes accessing this frequently adjusted setting easy. While holding down the ISO button, the main command dial (shown bottom-right) is used to affect setting changes. Turning the Sub-command dial (front dial) while holding down the ISO button (slightly awkward) toggles the auto ISO feature that will instruct the camera to adjust from the selected ISO to obtain optimal exposure in P, S, A and M modes. The movie record and +/- buttons are located on either side of the ISO button.
The top LCD is large and provides at-a-glance camera setting information.
An accessory shoe that provides access to Nikon's vast flash system is top and center over the viewfinder bulge. Unlike with the Nikon D810, there is no built-in flash. The in-camera stereo microphones are located to the front/sides of the viewfinder and the viewfinder diopter adjustment knob is on the right side.
The D850 has a high-functionality mode dial. Pressing the lock release button in front of the dial (just slightly is far enough) enables the outer release mode dial to be turned, selecting the release mode. This dial has click settings, but they are soft clicks. The middle of the mode dial has four buttons that, when held down, allow their indicated setting to be changed.
Nikon's metal-with-plastic-covering camera strap holders/eyelets are very nice.
Positioned below the shutter release on the upper left is the sub-command dial. This is a frequently used dial that works OK, but would fit my index finger slightly better if it was rotated around the grip slightly more toward the lens mount. On the left side of the lens mount are the Pv (depth of field preview) and programmable Fn1 buttons, easy to access from the grip hand finger tips.
To the right of the lens mount is the ubiquitous lens release button. Just below this button is the already-mentioned AF/MF lever that encircles the AF mode button. I like lenses to have an AF/MF button and having the same function on the camera is redundant. However, I like having this switch on the camera for a couple of reasons. One is that I sometimes use rain covers on my lenses and these can hide the lens switch (if the cover is over the camera, the camera's switch can also be covered). Another is that this AF/MF switch is always in the same location, regardless of the lens I'm using.
At the top-right of the camera's front are a pair of ports, the top being a flash synch terminal and the other a 10-pin remote release terminal.
While we are looking at the lens mount, I need to make a complaint. The righty-tighty left-loosey rule defines the direction of how (nearly) everything in the world rotates to be tightened or loosened. Nikon's lens mounts either predated that rule or someone thought it would be a good idea to ignore it, designing the mount to work in reverse-fancy-saying rotation (with the lens hoods turning in the proper direction). I know, in photography, all rules are meant to be broken, but ... this one should not be. I fear that I am going to tear a mount off of a lens or camera someday.
As usual, the left side of this DSLR has ports.
The top two ports, sharing a cover, are for mic and headphone connections (3.5mm stereo mini-pin). The middle port cover holds a SuperSpeed USB (USB 3.0 Micro-B connector) and the bottom is the HDMI out (Type C mini-pin HDMI connector) port.
Also as usual, the right side of the camera is featureless aside from the memory card door.
This is a full-sized, non-gripped DSLR.
|Model||Body Dimensions||CIPA Weight|
|Canon EOS 5Ds / 5Ds R||6.0 x 4.6 x 3.0"||(152 x 116.4 x 76.4mm)||32.8 oz (930g)|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||5.9 x 4.6 x 3.0"||(150.7 x 116.4 X 75.9mm)||31.4 oz (890g)|
|Canon EOS-1D X Mark II||6.2 x 6.6 x 3.3"||(158 x 167.6 x 82.6mm)||54.0 oz (1530g)|
|Canon EOS-1D X||6.2 x 6.4 x 3.3"||(158 x 163.6 x 82.7mm)||54.0 oz (1530g)|
|Nikon Z 7||5.3 x 4.0 x 2.7"||(134.0 x 100.5 x 67.5mm)||20.7 oz (585g)|
|Nikon D850||5.7 x 4.9 x 3.1"||(146.0 x 124.0 x 78.5mm)||32.3 oz (915g)|
|Nikon D810||5.7 x 4.8 x 3.2"||(146.0 x 123.0 x 81.5mm)||32.3 oz (915g)|
|Sony a7R III||5.0 x 3.88 x 3.0"||(126.9 x 95.6 x 73.7mm)||23.2 oz (657g)|
Although it is not a compact model, the D850 is typical in size and weight for the camera class it is in. Add the accessory grip and the D850 is typical in size for a pro DSLR model (about 6.8"/172.7mm high).
As we first began including Nikon lens testing on the site, a pair of Nikon D3x cameras were my primary use models for well over a year. They worked very well for me, but the grip ergonomics were not friendly to my fingers. I ended long shoots with some physical pain. Thankfully, the D850 does not have that problem.
While not compact, this camera is very comfortable to hold and use for even long periods of time (part of the joy of photography can be from the feel of the camera in your hand). The grip, with a decent thumb rest and a very good fingertip hold, is shaped for an easy and sure grasp; dropping this camera has not been a concern for me.
Cameras used for long periods of time are often those subjected to the most abuse and Nikon has your back with this one. Featuring magnesium alloy and carbon fiber (two of my favorite materials) construction, the D850 is ready for the rigors of professional use. The D850's extensive weather sealing can save the day, shoot, trip, etc.
Upon arriving at a cross country meet, I determined that rain was not going to be an issue and left the rain cover in the car. Just before the start of the race, I once again proved my lack of meteorology skills and the rain began. And, it was a bit more than just light rain.
I had two choices: hike the long distance back to the car and miss the race or stay. Trusting in the weather sealing of the D850 and Nikon 600mm f/4E AF-S FL ED VR Lens combination, I opted to stay. I would always prefer to have my gear covered in the rain, but weather sealing saved me at this event and rain can produce some unique images.
Spending 5 hours outdoors in near-0° F (-18° C) with very strong winds didn't faze the camera.
The D850's 200,000 shutter actuation rating will be found sufficient by most.
|Model||Shutter Durability Rating|
|Canon EOS 5Ds / 5Ds R||150,000|
|Canon EOS 5D Mark IV||150,000|
|Nikon Z 7||200,000|
|Nikon Z 6||200,000|
|Sony a7R III||500,000|
|Sony a7R II||500,000|
This camera has the overall high quality feel that you would expect from a high end Nikon model. The controls and nicely-raised buttons are overall easy to find and use.
The Nikon D850 has built-in Wi-Fi and low energy Bluetooth built in, two features that were absent in its predecessor, accessible using the SnapBridge app (iOS | Android). However, the functionality afforded by the camera's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections seem somewhat awkwardly implemented.
For instance, you can only establish a built-in Wi-Fi connection using SnapBridge and a Bluetooth enabled smart device. And while the D850 can transfer images automatically to your device (full resolution or 2MP JPEGs only), it can only do so over a Bluetooth connection. A convenience of the Bluetooth connection is that transfers can occur even with the camera turned off. However, as soon as you try to transfer full resolution 45.7MP images over Bluetooth, you will likely question Nikon's decision to limit automatic transfers to Bluetooth technology instead of the significantly faster Wi-Fi standard. To take advantage of Wi-Fi speed for image transfer, you must click "Download Pictures", establish a Wi-Fi connection, use the app to browse through the images on the memory card gallery and manually select/transfer them.
Other than simply transferring images, you can use SnapBridge to remotely control the camera with access to Live View, shutter release (single or continuous shots), focus control (via touch), shooting modes (P/S/A/M), and image brightness settings including shutter speed, aperture and ISO, exposure compensation and white balance. Thankfully, the app defaults to a Wi-Fi connection for camera control to ensure a smooth Live View experience.
GPS did not make it onto the D850's impressive feature list. However, location data can be appended to images recorded using a connected smart device running SnapBridge. The camera's clock can also be synchronized utilizing the SnapBridge connection. Alternately, GPS data can be recorded using an attached Nikon GP-1/GP-1a accessory.
The D850 can also connect to a wireless network router (Infrastructure Mode) or directly to a computer (Access-Point Mode) using the Nikon WT-7A Wireless Transmitter (requires Nikon's Wireless Transmitter Utility software with no internet access available while camera-connected) for JPEG, RAW or video file upload or for computer control of the camera.
The D850's Interval Timer Shooting feature allows up to 9,999 full resolution stills to be captured.
Those interested in macro photography will especially enjoy the D850's Focus Shift feature which allows for capturing up to 300 focus bracketed images for use in focus stacking applications. Cleverly, the camera allows you to specify an interval delay between shots so that any flashes being used have time to fully recycle.
Focus shift shooting results are then stacked using image stacking software (not provided). This feature is very useful and much easier than manually doing the same. However, improvements are waiting to be capitalized on.
Nikon USA's Focus Shift Shooting Guide provides information about setting up the camera for this function (use our Focus Stacking Primer for the post processing). Quickly apparent is the much of effort and knowledge (or guessing/trial and error) required to use this feature. What is greatly needed is a fully automatic mode. Let the camera automatically determine the distance of the closest and farthest subjects in the frame using live view. With that information combined with the easily calculated depth of field delivered by the selected aperture, focal length and other relevant parameters, the camera should be able to automatically determine the number of images needed and the focus distance adjustment needed between each. Depth of field increases with distance and the camera should take this into account for full automation. While the existing focus shift shooting function is very nice, it could be amazing. It seems that a firmware update alone could provide this feature.
Have you been photographing for quite some time and have a collection of 35mm film negatives (or perhaps have your parent's collection) that you'd like to convert to digital format? Paired with an ES-2 Film Digitizing Adapter and select Nikon NIKKOR Micro lenses, the D850 and its Negative Digitizer mode can do just that. Unfortunately, the Negative Digitizer mode is limited to JPEG output. You can also use the ES-2 Film Digitizing Adapter to backup positive film (strips or mounted slides) with RAW, TIFF and JPEG outputs available.
As noted earlier in the review, the D850 does not have a built-in flash (as the D810 had). "When combined with the optional WR-A10/R10 transceiver, the D850 can control and wirelessly fire radio-controlled SB-5000 Speedlights from another room, around corners or outdoors in bright sunlight." [Nikon USA] The WR-A10 is very small and relatively inexpensive.
Very impressive is the D850's battery life rating of 1,840 shots, up from the already-quite-adequate 1,200 in the lower resolution D810. One might think that a large battery, much larger than in the D810, is now being used, but the same-series Nikon EN-EL15a rechargeable Li-ion battery was Nikon's choice for the D850. Great is that this battery is compatible with many Nikon DSLR models, including the Nikon Z 6 and Nikon Z 7. The D850's movie recording battery life rating is approximately 70 minutes. Also remember that wireless communication increases battery drain.
The D850 provides a 6-level battery indicator on the top LCD and, depending on the options selected, the rear LCD and the EVF. The Battery info menu shows a specific percent remaining value, a shutter count and an age for the installed battery.
For more information on this battery series, check out Nikon's EN-EL15 series battery history and compatibility page.
Most enthusiast and higher DSLRs without a built-in vertical grip have an accessory option for this feature and the Nikon MB-D18 Multi-Power Battery Pack is the D850's dedicated option. While I appreciate and often use vertical grips on my DSLRs, especially whenever shooting in vertical orientation, this battery grip comes with an especially great feature. As discussed earlier, when an EN-EL18a/b battery is used (requires a BL-5 Battery Chamber Cover) in the MB-D18, the D850's maximum frame rate increases from 7 fps to 9 fps.
In addition, this setup has an incredible 5140 shots-per-charge CIPA rating. I can shoot heavily for days before needing to charge even the grip's battery. The MB-D18 does not insert into the battery chamber, but uses an electronic connection on the bottom of the camera. Thus, the in-camera battery can be used simultaneously or sequentially (and the battery door does not have to be removed to use the grip). Alternatively, the grip accepts a single EN-EL15-series battery or eight AA batteries can be used via the included MS-D12 AA Battery Holder.
The MB-D18 shares the D850's build quality including a magnesium alloy frame and weather sealing.
The grip provides its own shutter release button, AE/AF lock button, multi selector, main command dial and sub-command dials. Adding a grip of course increases the size and weight of the camera, but it can easily be removed when its benefits are not needed. I find this grip to be especially comfortable. Less comfortable is its price. The MB-D18 price is not crazy, but the cost of the other optional components adds up. Still, I found all of the parts worth acquiring.
A camera can produce images with no better quality than the lens mounted to it permits. Don't let your lens be the minimum factor to your image quality. At this resolution, a quality lens is especially important.
Fortunately, Nikon has one of the largest lens lineups available and there are many good choices available.
Not uncommon is for advanced DSLRs to be available only in body-only kits and no with-lens D850 kits are available at review time. While the D850 will work great for beginners, more often this will be a step-up camera purchased by photographers with lens kits already assembled.
Those looking for the best D850 general purpose lens should consider the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E AF-S VR Nikkor Lens and the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G AF-S VR Nikkor Lens. The f/2.8 option lets twice as much light in, but it costs more than twice as much, weighs 50% more, is 50% longer and has a 50mm shorter focal length range.
The D850 costs modestly less than the higher resolution Canon EOS 5Ds and the Canon EOS 5Ds R costs modestly more still. The lower resolution Canon EOS 5D Mark IV cost considerably less than the D850. The slightly lower resolution Sony a7R III costs slightly less than the D850, though the Nikon Z 7 would be a closer comparison to the Sony from a features perspective. The Z 7 is slightly more expensive than the D850. If making a cost-based decision, the cost of the required lenses must be considered and that can change everything.
Bringing this section back to the topic, the D850, when its features are compared to the other cameras, appears to be a very good value.
There is enough Nikon D850 information available to fill books. Keeping a review of the incredibly-feature-laden D850 concise but complete is a difficult balance to find and this review is not intended to be a complete description of every D850 feature available. The Nikon D850 owner's manual (a link to the manual is provided with this review) highlights all of the features found on this camera and explains their use. It weighs in at 400 pages. Read the manual, go use your camera, repeat.
The D850 used for this review was purchased online/retail.
Which is the best DSLR? For a high percentage of photographers, the Nikon D850 is going to be that camera (as of review time). The D850 is arguably the best DSLR available and a worthy upgrade from any other (minimally) Nikon DSLR camera model, including its predecessor, the D810. This upgrade may be a harder sell to those with a D5 and D5 owners will have to consider, minimally, the frame rate decrease yielded by such a change, but the D850's resolution upgrade is a huge one.
The Nikon D850 is completely loaded with features and most are best-in-class or nearly-best-in-class implementations. The AF system is as good or better than any DSLR phase detection AF system I've used to date and the fast frame rates are very useful. The 45.7 MP resolution is extremely high and the dynamic range is excellent. The camera feels good in the hand even after a long day of holding it and the viewfinder provides a large, full view of the scene. A plethora of controls makes setting changes quick and easy.
Fast-action photographers may find the 9 fps frame rate a bit too slow and will find the buffer filling too quickly at that rate. Those looking for good AF performance in movie mode will need to look elsewhere. Those needing the absolute highest resolution DSLR will want to opt for the Canon EOS 5Ds or 5Ds R options, though the difference is only slight.
There are very few line items on the list of applications this camera is not currently best-suited for. Two of the most challenging photography subjects are sports and wildlife and the D850 has performed stellarly for both. The image quality and vast array of features are there for professional landscape, architecture/real estate and portrait photography. This camera has been great for general purpose uses including around the house and on the lake.
Now we know why Nikon could not keep this camera on the shelf for its first year.
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