Photography / Hands-on Review

Dishing Out Delicacies with the Nikon D850

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There is no camera currently on the market that is more well-rounded than the Nikon D850. It offers everything you could possibly want and then some. Balancing outstanding resolution with more than enough speed and then tossing in UHD 4K video really does make this a versatile system and, perhaps, the best camera to be released in 2017. At home I like shooting food and, since I am dating someone who is studying to be a chef, there is always plenty of tasty food hanging around. Because I shoot a bit of video as well, I had to test the full-frame UHD 4K recording capabilities that are a first for Nikon.

Photography

It will be easiest to just work my way through the checklist of required features for this type of shooting, and even easier to start with what I think is the highlight feature: the FX-format 45.7MP back side illuminated CMOS sensor with no optical low-pass filter. For the close-up imaging and macro work involved with shooting food, this extra detail is always appreciated. It’s what made me love the Canon 5DS R when I reviewed it and why I love my Sony a7R II. In terms of pure resolution, this one sits right in the middle of its two rivals, but you would be hard-pressed to distinguish significant differences between them all, finally giving Nikon a camera to compete with other current-generation models—not that the D810 was any slouch.

You really can appreciate the detail in these close-ups, which means that the files are very flexible if you decide to shoot wide and want tighter composition as you edit. This is helpful, because sometimes when you have a camera setup overhead in a less accessible position, the ability to plan to crop in later can be a lifesaver. One other bonus, which fellow photographer/writer Bjorn Petersen mentioned, is that the shutter and mirror mechanism of the D850 seems to have been further optimized compared to its predecessors, meaning images are not affected (if at all) by shutter shock.

One aspect of the D850 you will want to make the most of is a set of super-sharp lenses. I know many people will rely on Nikon’s own Gold Series to satiate their needs, but the choice for me was Zeiss’s Milvus 50mm and 100mm macro lenses. This lens choice leads me to the next item on my list: a clear viewfinder and way to fine-tune focus, something especially in moments where just a hair turn of the focusing ring can result in an unusable frame. Milvus lenses are gorgeous, though they are manual focus optics, meaning getting a clear view of the image is so important to proper use. Fortunately, Nikon delivered here with a bright optical viewfinder that boasts a 0.75x magnification. I never had any issues making sure everything was in focus and on top of that I didn’t even miss the magnification function of my a7R II’s electronic finder. As a side note, I wear eyeglasses and had absolutely no issues with the D850’s viewfinder.

When I was working on a tripod I did tend to use the rear LCD, which is great. It is not fully articulating but, for the way I shoot, this wasn’t a problem and the addition of touch controls made it easy to snap a photo and zoom-in to check focus. You can use the touchscreen for everything in the menu, as well, making it operate like your smartphone. The 3.2" screen is bright and clear, as should be expected from any professional-level DSLR today, and has a notably high resolution of 2.36m dots. This combination of viewfinder and LCD meant that I was never struggling to make sure everything was tack-sharp.

Sometimes, however, even when your main subject is in focus, it doesn’t mean that everything in your frame is in focus. Nikon implemented a Focus Stacking setting in the D850 that I figure I needed to take for a spin. The only limitation of the mode is that it requires a lens with an AF-S or AF-P motor to work. In this case I went with the reliable AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR. The ease with which the camera can be set up to take the sequence is so easy that if I owned a D850 I would probably engage in focus stacking more than I do now. You simply dial-in the number of frames, basic settings as they relate to the stack, and then just let the camera go for it. It even puts them all in a single folder, so that when you bring the resulting image into Photoshop, you don’t have to do much digging to find where to start and end.

Speaking of Photoshop, the D850 files are very nice, and the raw images have a lot of latitude for pulling highlights and pushing shadows. The detail is present without much work and sensitivities of ISO 3200 are extremely clean. I wouldn’t have any issues pushing that even to 6400 or 12800 if the situation required it. Autofocus is impressive, as well, and though I didn’t push its limits I was glad that I didn’t even have to think about it when I needed to use it.

Overall, if you are a photographer, the D850 might just be the complete package. It has all the bells and whistles Nikon has thought up over the past decades and a few new ones for good measure. It also has one of the best full-frame image sensors on the market and offers a brilliant balance of resolution and speed. If you shoot sports, this might not be the right model for you, but for everyone else it is near perfect.

Video

The D5 and D500 represent Nikon’s push to get competitive video specs into its cameras, and if the cameras didn’t force users into a crop mode to get to the best quality settings, they probably would’ve been more loved. Anyway, the D850 rectifies this by being the first Nikon camera to implement full-frame UHD 4K video, as well as slow-motion Full HD at up to 120 fps. There are some quirks, however—while this is easily the best Nikon offering for video, it is far from ideal for videographers and filmmakers.

Let’s start with the good, though, especially the overall quality of the full-frame video settings. I was a bit worried about what Nikon would have to do to get the 45.7MP sensor down to the just 8MP needed for 4K video, but the company pulled it off about as well as one can expect. It appears to use some form of line skipping or similar method to reduce the resolution, so I would be concerned about moiré and aliasing showing up on fine details. This does get cleaned up a little when using the DX mode, but it is not to the extent that I would recommend exclusively using the DX mode over FX.

Nikon has implemented a few video-specific features here, as well, including peaking and exposure indicators. However, these are not available in the 4K modes, making them effectively worthless if you are picking this up specifically for the 4K video. One thing that was good is the Flat picture style. I love my log options on my Sony cameras but, practically speaking, it was nice to just apply a quick grade and get the picture close to the way I wanted it. You will always have to consider that it is still an 8-bit file (though 4K does use a decent compression with a ~150Mbps bit rate), so log is not always going to be the best option, and if you are in a more controlled shooting situation, then log may not even benefit you. You also have the option of using an external monitor with the D850’s HDMI out, though it is still limited to 8-bit with 4:2:2 sampling.

Unfortunately, it is time for the issues I had with the camera’s video performance. Just to get the obvious out of the way, rolling shutter is still an issue with pretty much any DSLR that shoots video. The D850’s isn’t better or worse than the competition, but it still isn’t great. I know a global shutter would be a bit much to ask for, but I have been waiting for years for someone to make significant improvements here. Also, autofocus is not great, and anyone shooting professionally should rely on manual focus for the time being. And my final nitpick is that when I de-clicked the Milvus lenses, the D850’s aperture control lever prevented smooth adjustments, resulting in uneven stepping. Now, there is a smooth aperture setting with their newest AF lenses but, for users with manual lenses, this is far from ideal.

The D850 does deliver the best video of any of Nikon’s DSLRs hands down, but you should be wary if you are buying a camera primarily for video work. I would say the D850 is perfect for photographers who want uncompromised stills performance, with the video being a bonus for the limited video work they need to do.

Bonus: 8K Time-Lapse!

Unfortunately, with such limited time and so much to cover, I didn’t get as much time as I would have liked to do a proper time-lapse video with the D850, but I did get a few nice shots that I’m sure you would like to see. This mode was just as easy to use as the Focus Stacking mode discussed earlier, and I was impressed with the exposure smoothing function, especially when testing out with sunrises and sunsets. Check out the short video below for a sampling of the D850’s interval shooting mode and feel free to ask questions below.

If I wasn’t already invested in plenty of gear and was given the opportunity the pick any camera I wanted, the D850 is an easy choice. Stills shooting is the best I’ve seen in years, with a gorgeous optical finder and exceptional image quality for resolution and low-light performance with a top-tier 45.7MP BSI CMOS sensor. It offers every feature I would ever want, and though improvements could be made in the video specs, it checks all the boxes I need for 90% of my shoots.

Have you added the D850 to your wish list yet? Or do you still have some questions about the camera? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

9 Comments

Pray i get mine for x-mas, B&H will make it happen!  PLEASE

I've heard so many great things about this camera.  After I placed my order months ago, I had dreams of taking fall photos for 2017, looks like I need to prepare for Fall of perhaps... 2050.  By then, I'm sure Nikon will have better versions than this one - but, maybe I'll be able to shout with glee once it arrives and with my cane, mozy out to take pictures.  I hope my eyesight will still be good by then.  Some day, until then I simply dream.

Clearly a powerhouse.  Now if only I could get the one I've ordered and paid for actually in my hands?

Definitely a superb camera is right. And trust us, we want them out to you guys as much as you want to receive them.

Nice camera even without the handy built-in flash, but I just want some of that tagliatelle al pesto!

— Copy Editor

What happened to the mini built-in flash on the 800 and 810?  Obviously it's gone, which is a sorry loss.  I used it frequently when in low-light situations and where there was no time to attach a flash.  It was surprisingly good as a quick and dirty fill-in flash.

I’ll miss it too. A Nikon rep made it sound superfluous as the newest flashes have radio connections...totally missing your point that it was handy in a pinch. 

Hi John,

The pop-up flash seems to have gone away in an effort to create a better sealed body and to potentially make room for other tech in that area. It is a nice thing to have as I appreciated using them as an optical commander instead of requiring an additional flash or radio triggers.

Professional photographers are often working quickly in less than ideal conditions and their cameras take lots of bumps and scrapes, Having a tougher camera means a lot to them. Perhaps one day we'll see a digital Nikon as small and simple as an F3; removing the pop-up flash is a step in the right direction.

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