Are you reading this because you are wondering if the new Nikon D850 camera is better than the Nikon D810? Are you questioning whether the aging D800 that has been your high-resolution workhorse for years will give the new camera a run for its money? What brings you here? You pretty much want to know if the Nikon D850 is a spectacular photographic machine. Well, I have the answer for you: it is amazing.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
Before I dive into my experiences with the Nikon D850, let me mention to you, or reinforce in your mind, that no one is making a bad digital camera these days—no one. Is this camera light years ahead of its competition in image quality, features, or awesome picture-taking-ness? No, it is not. And, it is not light years ahead of the competition, because the competition from Canon, Sony, Pentax, Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic is very, very good.
Also, this is the first part in a series of articles talking about different aspects of the Nikon D850. We are passing the camera around the office and letting different photographers explore the camera in their preferred way. My preference for shooting any type of camera is to take the machine out at night and make urban landscapes, so that is what I did with the brand-new production model D850 lent to Explora by Nikon.
The Nikon D850
Hey, the Nikon D850 has a new chassis—this isn’t a D810 with new innards. The D850, like the other D800-series cameras, is on the larger size of DSLRs. Deep grip. Heavy. Solid. It isn’t the D5 with the integral vertical grip and release (although you can add a grip), and it isn’t the more svelte D750 size. No one will mistake it for a D5500 while out in the wild.
Long-time Nikon 800-series users, buckle up. If you are used to letting your right hand do all the work to change shooting modes, be prepared to start changing ISO instead. The mode button and ISO button have swapped places, so now your left hand is gainfully employed when you want to switch from shutter to aperture priority—just like on the D500. The AF/AE-Lock button is gone, but new multi-programmable function (Fn) buttons have sprung up, as well as a great-feeling “joystick” that helps you move focus points and navigate menus. Also, let’s not forget that the LCD tilts up and down and is touch-screen friendly—see you later Nikon D810!
The Nighttime Test
A camera designed for capturing sports action is best tested on the sidelines. A high-resolution camera like the D850 can be put to the test in many environments, but I wanted to see how the D850 sees in the dark. How do the colors look? How does the autofocus perform when there isn’t much to see through the viewfinder? And, the question many photographers want to know: How is the high ISO performance?
To quickly put the D850 through its dark paces I headed to a (relatively) quiet corner of Brooklyn called Vinegar Hill and the Vinegar Hill Historic District. For those of you familiar with New York City, finding darkness outside of your no-way-you-can-walk-into-that-tiny-closet is problematic. Vinegar Hill isn’t exactly inky-shadow dark, but it is one of the quieter spots in the city with limited vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
The D850 is a night photographer’s dream in many ways. It has -3EV metering and a -4EV autofocus system that can literally see in the dark. Like the D5 and the D500, the rear buttons are illuminated. Unlike the D5, you don’t get the cool electroluminescent LCD backlighting that I love (think Timex Indiglo watches). I am not sure how you can get this beautiful backlighting on inexpensive wrist watches, but Nikon reserves it only for its pro flagship model. Anyway, I digress…
What a fantastic viewfinder—larger, brighter, and better than those before it. Regardless of whether you are photographing in broad daylight or in the dark of night, you will see more of everything in this 100% coverage viewfinder with 0.75x magnification. According to the local Nikon rep, it is the widest viewfinder Nikon has ever made.
Another cool feature: flicker protection. As you know (or might not have known), lights flicker. The D850 sees flicker and times the shutter to avoid catching your artificial ambient light in the off cycle. On a long night exposure, not a big deal at all, but for just about anything else, that will come in silently handy. I once did a time-lapse inside a factory and had to throw out a handful of images that were fired during the dark cycle of the overhead LEDs.
So, the meter and autofocus systems see in the dark and it won’t fire when lights are off. Awesome. But, let’s cut to the ISO chase…
First, the native ISO on this D850 is ISO 64. You read that correctly: ISO 64. At ISO 64, you get maximum image quality. This is fantastic for tripod-based landscape shooters. For night photographers, this is a double-edged sword. No one likes digital noise, and at ISO 64, there is none to be had. However, plan on adding some time to your night photography excursions as your old-school Nikon native ISO 200 30-second exposures are now just a hair over 90 seconds. Or, you can just shoot all day long at ISO 200 and never really see the difference in the images.
Cranking up the ISO, be ready to be impressed. See the example images for yourself, but ISO 1600 is where I start to see noise; even then it is not objectionable.
ISO 6400 works well. At ISO 12800 we start to say, “Meh.” But, if you are shooting at that high of an ISO, you either left your tripod in the trunk or are desperate to freeze motion in that Brooklyn closet. And, just for fun, I cranked the ISO up to ISO 25600—the highest standard setting. And, for even more fun, I cranked it up to the maximum expanded ISO of ISO 102400. For those keeping score at home, the same exposure of 94 seconds at ISO 64 takes ¼ second at ISO 102400.
What Else Do You Want?
It was apparent to me, even after two short outings, that the Nikon D850 is a complete camera. Fantastic sensor. Fast as you can want it to be. D5 autofocus speed. D800-series resolution. All the bells and whistles you desire.
Are you ready for the Nikon D850? What questions do you have about the camera or my experiences with it? Let us know in the Comments section, below!