Into the Dark of Night, with the Nikon D850


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

Nikon D850 DSLR Camera

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!

Yes, those are stars overhead, in Brooklyn, New York. Who knew?

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.

ISO 64
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600
ISO 102400

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 1600

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!

4 x 5 crop thanks to Bjorn Peterson monkeying with settings!



Those are amazing shots... not necessarily because of the composition, but due to the capture of light and colors that the eye doesn't see at night. As both a musician and a photographer, I find the artificiality of digital processing sometimes disquieting. Maybe that's why I find the night shots in Brooklyn a bit too artificial and disquieting because they expose hidden realities my eyes are incapable of seeing. The ability of the sensor to pull the details out of the darkness is astounding, but it is hard to visually relate to these images as being shot at night. It's like looking at silk fabric through a high-powered microscope... interesting, but no clue about what you are looking at. It seems that photography has become more an art and science of digital image creation than it is the classical challenge of capturing something the eye has seen. It's a different art form in the same way as a classical symphonic piece performed on synthesizers is a new way of musical expression. Anyway, the D850 looks amazing to a D800 owner (me). I sold my D800 (due to chronic spots on the sensor that could never be cleaned away) and have gone back to my venerable D700 as my working camera. I am considering the upgrade to the D750 (especially with your current deal on it). Truthfully, I would rather have the D850, but economics is a harsh mistress.

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the compliments on the images...I think! Ha!

As far as the colors, the credit has to go to the camera. As far as composition...that is all me for better or worse!

Photography, even before digital, was a technologically based art form. Digital has made it more so. But, composition and timing has always been decided by the artist.

Music is also technologically based and has endured its own digital revolution.

I hope someone get's you a D850 for the holidays...or a B&H Gift Card to help you get your own!


Where is my D850?  I ordered back in August and B&H says they don't know when my D850 will come.  Another thing, I can't find any XQD cards for when, if ever, it does come.  Whoa is me ---.  I would love to be able to say, with conviction, "This D850 is GREAT!!!

Hey Henry,

I do hope you can write us back soon to tell us that your D850 is great. We are certainly shipping them out as fast as we can. I think Nikon may have underestimated the demand...kind of a good problem for them to have, but it doesn't make us look great. I promise you that there is no hidden stash of D850s taking up space in a closet here at B&H. They leave as soon as they get here.

Thanks for your patience. I will cross my fingers that you get yours soon. Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm not "wondering if the D850 will be better than my D810" -- I'm wondering if it will ever arrive!  Ordered mine just days after the announcement -- still nada!  I was attending a Nikon workshop a few weeks ago and they said they were shipping out a lot the following week -- but all I get from B&H are 'dear john' letters.  :-(  Surely one can find its home to a long time B&H customer??

Hey D,

Apologies for the delay in replying. Your message was sent when we were updating the Explora comment system. 

Regarding your D850, I certainly hope you get it soon. Please believe me when I tell you we are sending them out as fast as they arrive. Demand has been great and deliveries have been slow! I wish I had a crystal ball, but no one here seems to know when the next shipment arrives and ships. Sorry, friend!

Hang in there Henry D -- mine just came in today!!!! I also ordered mine in August.  You could have knocked me over with a feather when I got the news B&H was shipping it and it was arriving the next day!  :-)  B&H has at least some of the Nikon approved XQD cards -- just ordered mine today along with a larger capacity SD card; those XQDs are quite pricey for the larger capacity.  I prefer lots of smaller capacity cards anyway - my thinking is if one fails during a shoot I have the potential of loosing much less than if I was using a high capacity card.  Anyway, I am so eager to test my long-time love D810 against this new suiter.  LOL! 

Thanks, Todd! 

Congrats on your new arrival, Diane! Enjoy!

ya uh, i really dont like those photos BUT i just got my D850 8 days ago and ive done 1 wedding and 4 photo shoots with it and i have to tell ya its a really nice camera, I have a Photography Videography business and we have 2 d500 a 7200 and c100 mark 2's for video this is our first full frame camera and i have used the 750 a sony a9 a few times and i love this I got mine at pro photo supply in portland or, although i useually buy everything else at b&h when we had the a9 i gave it to one of my photographers to use for a wedding and she said she liked it but not as much as the d500 shed been useing the quality of the a9 is great but, i dont know, once you shoot with a nikon thiers just somthing about it that feels good i think canon and sony make some good cameras but they just dont feel like a nikon, also i never talk about megapixels because in my business that really doesnt mean much, its really all about the glass (lenses) you have, if you have an older camera upgrade your glass before your camera and youll be amazed

Hey Nolan,

Sorry you don't like the photos, but I am glad you are enjoying your D850.

Thanks for stopping by!

I was really hoping this review would incompase 'night' photography. By that I mean astro photography, the milky way. Real night!!! I currently use both the d810 and 5d III, and was hoping for an improvement in the night time focusing abilities of the nikon. While I very much appreciate the d810 dynamic range and other attributes, it is a poor performer at night. Escpecially using live view focusing in comparison to the 5d III. Maybe someone can actaully test the 'night time' capabilites of the d850, specfically focusing at night and I mean in the middle of nowhere with no ambient light except the stairs. And how it behaves in that same environment with iso 3200 to 6400.

Hey Jim,

I would have loved to do some astrophotography with the D850, but I only had the camera for 2 nights and live and work in New York City...the astrophographer's nightmare shooting location!

Please feel free to write to B&H and request that they send me to the American southwest or, even better, to the Atacama desert in Chile with the D850! I would be glad to get you all the shots you need and a complete review! My bags are packed!

As a sometimes-astrophotographer, I wont hesitate to suggest getting an older prime lens with a hard-stop at infinity for trouble-free astro focusing!

Thanks for stopping by! Sorry our night is different than your night!


Took my 850 out into he desert in NV for milky way shots two weeks ago, unfortunately the night I was in town, the quarter moon was right in the middle of the MW. but the 850 handled the problem superbly, Yes the moon looked like a BIG bright star, but the resolution in very close proximity was impressive. Moonlight gave me forground detail, while the milky way was VERY good,  as good as anything I've gotten with my 810 or 800e. Focusing was trivial with the live view I had a bright light on the horizon and the LV worked like a champ. LV appears to zoom in one more zoom level, (not sure) and the noise that used to be in the 800e was absent.

ISO shots of 6400 are AWESOME, 12800 and 25600 were very usable. I shot Long Exposure NR OFF, High ISO NR OFF, and the fullframe images on a 27" 4K monitor the noise is barely perceptable, 100% zoom, yes its there but very well controlled and not distracting or objectionable. This was one of the first times at night I felt very comfortable stopping my Samyang 14 f/2.8 down to f/4 to improve lens accuity / vingetting etc. 

The Electronic front shutter really works, no shutter shake, just touch the LCD. 

I replaced an aging 800E with an 810 a little less than a year ago, thinking the 800e would be a good backup camera, Well the 810 is now relagated to backup, and I really haven't used it since the 850 arrived.  I jumped on the 850 for the "Focus Stacking" as I do a fair amount of macro work, yes its awesome there, I tried it on some landscapes with the 28 f/18 shot at f/4-5.6 and the results are superb. So my 800e is now in deep storage waiting for a good afternoon of timelpase shooting where I'll set up two of three camers ;o)) If you haven't used a QXD card yet, 64 gb downloads at ~180/mbs.

I won't be giiving mine up very soon.


Bryan J Ramsay 

A Maine astrophotographer extrordinaire has recently posted a review of his new D850.  Google Aaron Priest of Lee, Maine and you should find it and learn more than you could imagine from this super intelligent and fabulously nice guy.

Thanks for the assist, Steve! That will not help me get a free trip to Chile.

I've been impressed with the d850 ever sense I started reading about it. The camera is over kill for my real estate photography but being a retired gaget  person I only have one question. When will I get my new d850 that I ordered last week. Can't wait to get it.

Well I ordered mine Aug 24th and still don’t have it if that helps...

Fingers crossed for you as well, robin!

Hey Don,

I hope you get your camera soon. Please believe me when I say that we don't have piles of D850's littering our desks here at B&H. We are sending them out as soon as they arrive.

Enjoy it when you get it!

I'm a "serious" hobbyist and have owned the D810 for over 2 years. I complain about it's bulk and weight and was considering migrating to the new Sony R7 III. After comparing size and weight between those 2, I had decided to stick with the D810 for a while. Now I've changed my mind. I'll just to have to accept bulk and weight. I'm going to buy the 850 soon. This article and its samples have pushed me "over the edge"! Thanks for a helpful review.

Hey Frank,

I am glad you enjoyed the review and look forward to getting a commission check for selling you on the camera! Ooops. I was just told no one at B&H makes commission. Bummer!

I hope you enjoy your D850 when you get it!

No women testing the D850? B&H should do better than NIkon did with their advertising for the D850.  

Hi Tricia,

Not sure if this helps, but the executive producer of our D850 video is female ( and, unfortunately, our own Jill Waterman, a great Nikon shooter, was busy with other reviews and articles during our short time with the loaner D850.

Thank you for your comment and for reading Explora.

Terribly boring pictures that show you can use a camera at night, which to be fair, with a tripod has never been a problem with most cameras. Image quality is poor after 1600 ISO, again like most cameras.

Thanks for helpful review.  I have the D810 and struggle with noise over ISO800 for evening aerial photography.  I was thinking I may have to go to something like the D5 but do you think the D850 would be capable?  

Hey Vanessa,

Thank you for the kind words! Regarding the D5 vs. D850 thought is that they are imperceptibly close in performance. My suggestion would be to look at review sites that do side-by-side bench testing in a controlled environment and see what their results are. We are more about practical tests out in the field.

Thanks for reading! Sorry I can't give you a definitive answer.

Question: Can I order a D850 now and have it shipped directly back to Nikon? That way, when the recall notices come out, it will save me a step.  ;- )  

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. After my experience with the D600 and D750, it seems like a fair question.

Seriously though, I'm sort of drooling over this camera. I'm probably going to sell one of two D750 bodies and a seldom used lens to apply toward the purchase price. While I'm in love with my D750's this body has that extra resolution and low light performance I've been lusting after.

Very funny, Stephen. I would imagine the Explora readership from Nikon corporate had an uncomfortable moment when reading your comment. :)

I hope you enjoy the D850 when it arrives!


I’m pretty sure the D750 will give you better low light performance than the D850.  I’d recommend rentibg the D850 first and comparing it with your D750.


That is the worst ISO image to comapre with... Almost any of your other images would have been better. Your focus doesn't even stay in the same spot?!

Hey JS,

I knew someone was going to notice that! Congratulations.

A few things...

How interesting that the focus point shifted on a static scene shot from a tripod? I was not manually shifting focus points, but it was super dark there and the camera was obviously hunting to focus on anything it could make out. In hindsight, I should have locked the focus after initial acquisition.

I actually went out the next night and re-did the sequence, but someone at work had monkeyed with the camera settings (I didn't notice) and I had to stick with the originals.

The second thing is that, on a high ISO comparison test, you probably want to be pixel peeping the very dark right edge of the image where the darkest shadows are. Because it is virtually a void, subtle changes in focus will not effect how you see the noise in that region.

Congrats again on the Eagle Eye award! Thanks for stopping by to comment.

The images show how wonderful the camera is. Whatever I don't like about them is more a result of the photographer's decisions than the camera itself, for example, the unsharp bicyclist and those shots that look as though they were taken in daylight, although I suppose the daylight looking ones were purposefully to show how amazing the camera is. "Amazing" is my final word.


Hi Daniel,

As tempting as it is to apologize for the cyclist moving during the 5-second exposure, I was not about to ask a complete stranger, working on opening her gate, to stand still for a photographer. Besides, I think her motion really adds to the nighttime feel of the image. I have two other versions of that image where she looks completely ghost-like. Pretty cool.

In night photography, there is always a debate about making things look like "daylight." Vinegar Hill is a very dark place, and, unless the image contains street lighting, interior lighting, or movement, you are left with the choice of a very muddy, dark image, or a longer exposure that brightens up the environment and shows detail. The nighttime "hints" are in the details...subtle movement of foliage, multi-directional shadows, and, if the moon is overhead, un-sharp shadows from a light source changing position overhead.

I do hope you thought some of the images were "amazing" as well as the camera's performance.

Thanks for taking the time to comment!


Hey Cristian,

I would make that bet, too. The D800 is a fantastic camera.

I got my D850 two months ago, in mid-September.  Before that, I used a D800 and was happy; felt no need to upgrade to D810 and purposely waited for the next iteration.  Sold off a D750 (had weird green-toning) and a D7000.  I now pair the D850 with a D500 to maintain top quality and get the effective extra length on lenses.  The combination is the best I've ever had (after carrying a brace of F5s back in the day).  One helpful aspect of a high-megapixel camera is the ability to crop a photo and still have enough resolution for printing or other uses.  I agree that the D850 is not a huge leap in technology, but you will notice a difference; I'm extremely please, especially with color rendition.  One commenter complained that Nikon keeps changing technology and the location of buttons.  True that, but after using the D800, I picked up the D850 and started shooting.  Yes, I need to take a deep dive into the manual and learn more, but shooting in the field is not all that difficult.  And, as noted, it pairs well with the D500.  Yesterday, I shot an historic grist-mill town and its river in Virginia and today I shot a cemetery in the middle of Washington, DC.  I found that the only limitation to the quality of the photographs is me; the cameras are fabulous.  For what it's worth, my go-to lenses (all Nikkor) are 24-120mm f/4, 105mm macro f/2.8 and 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6.  The D850 doesn't even grunt when I put on the slower long zoom.

Hi John

I'm a D810 owner thinging of moving up to D850.  My go to lense right now is the 24-120 f/4.  I've read mixed reports of this combination.  Sounds like you had no issues with it?

Hey John,

Great stuff. You hit the nail on the head...the photographer is often the limiting factor in these things. I am glad you are enjoying your D850/D500 combo...that is a great pairing of cameras that can handle just about anything you can throw at them.

Thanks for reading Explora!


It seems to me the D850 does most of what the D500 does inly better.  I think a lower megapixel full frame (D5 or D750, without the green tone, never heard of that problem) camera would be a better fit particularly if you need better liw light performance.



The physics always said that if you had more pixels on a given sensor, you would have more noise. However, the noise performance of high megapixel cameras gets better and better.

Can you imagine how good the noise performance would be if manufacturers applied today's sensor technology to something like the 12MP D700 full-frame sensor of yesteryear? I would love to see that...not that I would use it, but it might be super impressive.

My still working Kodak DSC ProSLR/n Full Frame Sensor has ISO 6/12/25/50 in the 'Long" and "Longer" exposure settings. Yes you should use a tripod in these settings unless it's a very bright day and you have a very fast lens. No Noise! It's has 14mp and that is enough. It is also a joy to hold in my hand. I have 5 Pro DSLRS Nikon DSC ProSLR/n, Nikon D1H (2), Nikon D1X and a Canon 1DsMkII. I could not resist the Canon 85 f1.2 L lens and the 1DsMkII combo for night work without a tripod. Still the older Kodak DSC ProSLR/n and a sharp 50 f/1.4 or my 85 f/2 is good enough for me.

I do not know why I made this post except to point out that Kodak made a fine digital SLR camers 19 years ago.

Um, WOW. A 19 year old digital camera. Peter, for heaven's sake, do yourself a favour and get a new camera and send the Kodak to the Smithsonian. Chatting about the Kodak in a forum on the D850 is akin to stating the prowess of the Model T in a room full of TESLA drivers. As my grandmother would say, "heavens to Betsy". If you pick up a camera with today's technology, I think you might pull a muscle rushing to shelve your Kodak....just sayin'...


Whatever happen's, I hope you keep shooting!

Hey Michael,

There are definitely some who would prefer the Ford Model T to the Tesla Model S. T comes after S in the alphabet, must be better!

Thanks for stopping by!

Hey Peter,

There is no doubt that Kodak (with Nikon) made a fantastic DSLR camera back in the day. And, this just in, a digital camera that could take great photos 15 years ago, can still take great photos. Shhhh! Don't tell anyone!

Congratulations on resisting gear acquisition syndrome! I will bet $20 that you process your files way faster than anyone shooting modern super-megapixel files!


Nikon makes it quite hard to seriously consider continued investment in a system that we need to partially re-learn every few years. They keep shuffling the controls around, removing controls and altering their functionality. A few of the images I take the most pride in were made with my D3000 and D90. My D3 and D700 were true work-horses that did what Nikons should do: pump-out images with a strong Image Quality on a consistent and reliable basis. When I moved to D4 D800, I had to re-learn  half of what operations did what, because Nikon decided to keep us morte focused on trying to make the cameras work the way we want and not realize their cameras are being introcuced with more bells & whistles and in some ways lesser capabilities. I'm comparing the D5 and D3s for an update when my D4 is ready to croak. And my D800E - my third, since my D800 and D800E #1 were green-tinting duds - was set to become a D850. However, for all the added performance features (AF capabilities are a huge step-up, if you actually use a camera at this level without focusing yourself) this camera is still forcing users to re-learn half of what they know. At this level, a photographer isn't buying a picture-taking device. They're buying-into a complete system. And this system seems to be changing with each reiteration, nearly. The D5 strikes me as a lump, although it's incrementally yet notably superior to my D4 or the D4s in performance above ISO 1600. The D850 has incredible image integrity when exposures are made at ISO 100 or 64 (I've thoroughly pixel-peeped low-light Camera RAW images), but once again we're asked to dump bucks deluxe so we can re-learn our existing system. It looks like less of a "system" when you consider it this way, does it not??

Happy shooting. Regardless of your weapon of choice ;)

I am NOT a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination. However, I have taken some really beautiful pictures. I tend to be a extreme close-up "still life" fanatic. I have 2 Nikon F3-HP cameras. One is equipped for portriats and the other for close-ups. I purchased a D50 when they first came out because "everybody" was going digital. In every photo contest I took part in my opposition was all digital.  I'll tell you my D50 still has not taken the equivalent of 20 rolls of flm. I hate it and consider it a "waste of money". I still shoot the F3's using old fashioned professional slide film when I can find it and get better qualitysharper images, extremely important for close-ups,  that I manually focus than anything the D50 ever could produce. Sorry, but digital and AF is not all it is cracked up to be as evidenced by the continuous release of the "next generation".   

Keep on keeping on with the film and the F3s, Maxx!

Feel free to send your D50 to the B&H Used Department and get a few bucks to put towards film and developing!

Hey Daniel,

I might agree with some of your points. I wish I could sit in on Nikon meetings where they make a conscious decision to swap buttons around on the top of the camera. It is not as if they are adding new buttons in some cases, but only shifting the interface from their "classic" positions to somewhere new...for what reason? Did they get a compelling letter from one photographer? Or many letters from many photographers?

I am curious.

Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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