Nikon D850 review

The Nikon D850 is finally here. After months of speculation, and Nikon itself teasing us back in July that the camera actually existed and was in development, the D850 has been officially announced – and boy, does it look like it's been worth the wait.

Superseding the brilliant 36.3MP D810 that's loved by both pros and enthusiasts alike, the D850 certainly has big shoes to fill. That said, while the D810 ticked a lot of boxes for photographers, its modest burst shooting speed of 5fps meant it wasn't the perfect all-round DSLR.

Nikon doesn't appear to be holding back with the D850, though, boosting numerous areas of the camera's performance to make it appear (on paper at least), the most well-rounded DSLRs we've seen. Is the D850, then, the ultimate DSLR?

Features

  • Full-frame CMOS sensor, 45.4MP
  • 3.2-inch tilt-angle touchscreen, 2,359,000 dots
  • 4K video capture

While the D810 retained the same 36.3MP resolution as the groundbreaking Nikon D800/D800e, it's been eclipsed by both the 50.6MP Canon EOS 5DS and 42.2MP Sony Alpha A7R II. The D850, though, gets an all-new 45.4MP full-frame back-illuminated sensor (BSI), which is a hefty increase in pixels over the D810, and only marginally behind the 5DS.

Thanks to the light-collecting elements being closer to the surface of the sensor, the BSI design should deliver better low-light performance than previous sensors. Just as we've seen with the D810 (and D800e), the D850 forgoes an anti-aliasing filter, which means even more detail can be eked out of the sensor, although there is the added risk of moiré patterning. 

On the occasions where you don't want (or need) to shoot at the D850's full resolution, there are two reduced size options, 25.6MP and 11.4MP, recording either raw or JPEG files. We can certainly see this feature appealing to news and sports shooters who'll want to transmit images as quickly a possible to picture desks, and might have otherwise passed up the D850 in favor of the 20.8MP Nikon D5. 

Another trick up the D850's sleeve is the camera's DX Crop mode, in which the perimeter of the viewfinder is masked to provide a view equivalent to that of an APS-C-format DSLR. The resolution drops, as you're only using a portion of the sensor, but thanks to the D850's huge resolution you'll still be able to capture 19.4MP files – that's impressive stuff, and not far off the 20.9MP resolution of both the D500 or D7500. There's also a new 1:1 aspect ratio at 30.2MP.

Compared to the D500 (and, for that matter, the D5), the Nikon D850 has quite a modest ISO ceiling of 25,600, with a native base sensitivity of ISO64. This is no surprise really when you consider how densely populated the sensor is, but there is an extended sensitivity range up to an ISO equivalent of 108,400 (Hi2), while landscape photographers will be happy to learn that the D850 also has a Lo1 setting equivalent to ISO32.

The D850 sports a new 0.75x optical viewfinder – that's the largest magnification factor ever on an FX Nikon DSLR, and also a touch bigger than the 0.71x viewfinder on the 5DS. Unlike the D810, the D850 also features a tilt-angle, 3.2-inch 2,359,000-dot touchscreen. It's similar in spec to the one on the D500, but offers greater touch control, enabling you to navigate the menus as well as touch to focus, trigger the shutter and review images. 

The D850 can shoot 4K UHD video in FX format with no sensor cropping at up to 30p, allowing you to take full advantage of the field of view of your lenses. Lower-resolution video modes are also available, including Full HD footage in 60p, while 4K UHD timelapse movies can be created in-camera.

If 4K timelapse footage isn't quite enough for you, the D850 can also create a full resolution time-lapse videos in third-party software thanks to the camera's built-in intervalometer – you can now create a new folder and reset the file numbering for each timelapse sequence, and avoid the rigmarole of stripping out the desired files yourself.

The D850 drops the CompactFlash card slot that was on the D810 in favor of an XQD slot

There's also an electronic Vibration Reduction system to reduce the impact of camera shake when shooting movies handheld, and there are ports for an external microphone and audio monitoring.

The D850 drops the CompactFlash card slot that was on the D810 in favor of an XQD slot and the performance advantages that brings (although at the moment Nikon is the only manufacturer to take up this storage format on its cameras), while the SD card slot supports cards up to UHS-II. 

The D850 gets Nikon's SnapBridge connectivity for wireless transfer of images, which establishes a low-energy Bluetooth connection between the camera and your smart device. Images can then be transferred from camera to device via as you shoot at either 2MP or full resolution (though we'd avoid this with 45.4MP files), or individually if you select images on the camera. For speedier Wi-Fi transfers you can use the app to browse and select the images you desire.

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Build and handling

  • Magnesium alloy body
  • Comprehensive weather-sealing
  • Weighs 1005g

The Nikon D850 may share similar proportions to the D810, but quite a bit has changed. 

Pick up the camera, and if you're coming from a D810 or D800, the first thing that strikes you is the re-worked grip. It's now that bit deeper, and much more comfortable to hold than its predecessor, especially for longer periods. 

As on the D500, Nikon has omitted the pop-up flash in an effort to make the camera even sturdier. Some may be sorry to see this feature disappear – we've found it useful in the past for triggering remote Speedlights – but it's always felt like a bit of a weak link on a pro-spec DSLR.

And with no pop-up flash, a tough magnesium alloy body, and weather seals to protect it from the elements, the D850 feels every bit the pro DSLR you'd expect it to be. It's incredibly well made, and there's no question this camera's up for the rigors of professional use.

Compared to the D810, the controls have also been tweaked on the D850 – in fact, if you've been shooting with the D500 or D5, it should be pretty much home from home for you, and if you're planning on using different bodies side by side it should making switching between them pretty seamless.

If you're coming from a D810 though, you'll notice that the top plate arrangement has changed for a start, and it's much better for it. The ISO button now sits just behind the shutter button, which makes it easier to adjust single-handed; it's an improvement on the slightly awkward positioning on the D810, where it sat in the cluster of four buttons above the drive mode selector.

The D850 offers a refined shooting experience

Round the back, and along with the tilt-angle display the other notable addition is a small AF joystick, like the one we've seen on both the D500 and D5. This enables you to quickly select your desired focus point, although you can still use the eight-way controller on the back of the camera if you prefer. Its positioning means it falls under the thumb easily; if we're being super-picky it would be nice to be able to assign this as the back-button focus control as well, but the AF-On button is positioned just above the joystick.

As on the D500, you can set the majority of the controls on the Nikon D850 to light up (along with the top-plate LCD) by rotating the on/off switch beyond the 'on' position – it's a really useful feature that makes it much easier to quickly change settings in poor light.

All in all, the D850 offers very refined shooting experience. You'll be able to happily shoot and tweak core shooting settings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

Autofocus

  • 153-point AF, 99 cross-type AF points
  • User-selected array limited to 55 points
  • Impressive coverage across the frame

The 51-point autofocus system in the D810 is still one of the best performers out there, but Nikon has equipped the D850 with the same Multi-CAM 20K AF module as its flagship D5. 

In our book this is one of the best, if not the best, autofocus systems we've seen on any camera to date. It features an impressive 153 AF points, of which 55 are user-selectable, while 99 are the more sensitive cross-type points for even greater precision. That's not all – AF sensitivity goes all the way down to -4EV for the central AF point (with the remainder focusing down to -3EV), which should enable the D850 to focus pretty much in almost complete darkness. 

As we've experienced with the D5, the system is excellent, with sports and action photographers unlikely to be disappointed by the D850's autofocus performance. 

If you're coming from the 51-point AF system in the D810 you'll notice the difference, particularly in poor light – even in these tricky conditions the D850's ultra-sensitive AF snapped into focus incredibly quickly. 

We tested the D850 in a range of conditions, with its toughest challenge coming when we shot the Tour of Britain's Time Trial stage. With cyclists going flat-out, the D850 didn't let us down; focusing speed was incredibly quick, even letting us grab shots when cyclists appeared in the frame without warning, while it would happily track fast-moving subjects as they moved towards and across the frame. 

As with the D5 (and the D500), Nikon has included its clever automated procedure for fine-tuning lenses on the D850. It's an incredibly useful tool for tweaking the performance of prime lenses for critical focusing, and the system on the D850 has been improved to make it even easier to set up and calibrate your lenses.

Something the D850 can't quite match Canon's latest DSLRs for is Live View performance. While the Dual Pixel CMOS technology used in the likes of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV can rival that of mirrorless cameras, Live View focusing with the D850 is still a little clunky; it's better than previous models, but still not as swift as it could be. 

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Performance

  • 7fps burst shooting (9fps with battery grip)
  • 51 shot raw file buffer
  • 1,840-shot battery life

Despite the decent increase in pixels over the D810, the Nikon D850 features an increased burst shooting speed, up from 5fps to 7fps, making it an even more versatile piece of kit.

Furthermore, attach the optional MB-D18 battery grip to the D850 with a large EN-EL18B battery (as used in the D5) inserted, and that rate will increase to 9fps. This certainly compares favorably with the 5fps shooting speed of both the Canon EOS 5DS and Sony Alpha A7R II, and considering the size of the files the D850 has to process, the 51-shot buffer (at 14-Bit raws) is also very impressive.

The D850's standard battery is the EN-EL15 – it's the same power pack used by the D810, but Nikon has managed to squeeze even more life out of the battery here to deliver a staggering 1,840-shot life. To put that in perspective, you'd need seven NP-FW50 batteries with the Alpha A7R II to reach anything like the D850's battery capacity, or two LP-E6N batteries with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Something that's bound to appeal to wedding and social photographers is the D850's ability to utilize an electronic shutter to shoot silently at 6fps in Live View mode. Need more speed? Select the DX crop mode and you can shoot 8.6MP pictures at an impressive 30fps.

The D850’s Matrix metering system performs well in a range of lighting conditions

The D850 employs a 180K-pixel RGB sensor (the same as the D5's), offering metering down to -3EV. This may not sound like a big deal, but if you're shooting long exposures with ND filters you can now rely fully on the D850’s AE and AF without needing to detach the filter. In our tests, the D850's multi-zone Matrix metering system performed very well under a range of lighting conditions, while the breadth of the camera's dynamic range (more on that in a bit) means you've got a fair bit of leeway should the camera get it wrong.

The D850 features three types of auto white balance to cover you for most scenarios. Auto 0 should faithfully render whites under any light sources, Auto 1 maintains a balance of the original subject color and ambient lighting, while Auto 2 renders colors with a natural sense of warmth, retaining the color of incandescent lighting.

The optical viewfinder is stunning; it's incredibly large and bright, while the clarity of the rear touchscreen display doesn't disappoint.

Image quality

  • ISO64-25,600 (expandable to ISO32-108,400)
  • Additional 25.6MP Medium and 11.4MP Small raw file sizes
  • Built-in focus stacking

As you'd expect from a sensor packing 45.4 million pixels, the level of detail the Nikon D850 is capable of resolving is impressive. You'll be able to produce large prints rich in detail, although it goes without saying that to make the most of the sensor you'll need the best glass.

When it comes to high-ISO noise performance, again the D850 doesn't disappoint. Images up to ISO3200 display excellent levels of detail, with minimal noise, while at ISO3200 there's barely any luminance (grain-like) noise in images, and no hint of chroma (color) noise.

Push above that to ISO6400, and while luminance noise is slightly more pronounced, it's still very good – we'd be more than happy to shoot at this sensitivity. Even at ISO12,800 and ISO25,600, while noise is more noticeable it's still well controlled, and results are more than acceptable. Above that we'd try to avoid the two extended settings, which see saturation dropping off a tad; however, with some tweaking in Lightroom or similar it might be possible to get a satisfactory result at ISO51,200.

The D810 has always impressed with its dynamic range performance, and the good news is that despite the extra pixels populating the D850's sensor it appears to be a similar story here. It's possible to severely underexpose a shot and be able to happily recover shadow detail without unwanted noise encroaching on the shot. 

Manually shooting focus-stacked images can be a chore, but the D850 introduces a focus shift photography function, which enables it to shoot a sequence of up to 300 frames, while gradually and automatically shifting focus position from the start point to infinity. The shutter release interval can be set from 0-30 seconds, while the focus step width can be selected from 10 levels. 

You'll need an image-editing program like Photoshop to then combine the pictures in post-production, but this looks like a great way to quickly shoot highly detailed macro images

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Verdict

It's felt like a long time coming, but the Nikon D850 has definitely been worth the wait. To say the specification is comprehensive is an understatement; the D850 is packed with desirable photographic features, while it backs these up with impressive performance and stunning image quality. 

Live View focusing speeds could still be better, while the rather rudimentary SnapBridge connectivity offered is disappointing; but those issues aside, whether you're shooting weddings, landscapes, portraits, action or wildlife, the D850 won't leave you wanting.

A much more versatile proposition than the D810 (and its closest rivals), the D850 is a brilliant DSLR, and perhaps the most well-rounded camera we've ever tested.

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