Photography / Hands-on Review

Going Uptown with the Nikon D850

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At last, a DSLR that excites me 100%. Seemingly with no compromises in sight, the Nikon D850 has recently burst onto the scene as the most anticipated DSLR release this year. And fittingly so. But, does the D850 live up to its hype? Has Nikon “done it again” with another D800-series camera? I had the opportunity to take it out for a few days in upper Manhattan to see what all the fuss is about.

Before I get going, I must point out the inherent bias I have with this camera in that it is seemingly designed for exactly the type of photography I enjoy. Landscapes, architecture, and lifestyle shooting. I like to photograph at a relatively slow pace but, of course, I enjoy the ability to shoot some spontaneous moments as they come, as well. I place a high degree of value in how a camera handles, and what it’s like to work with the camera rather than just the specs on the page. As much as there are so many great cameras out there now, the ones that I am most drawn to are the ones that afford me the simplest operation possible without much tinkering required. And I’m happy to report that the Nikon D850 checks off most of my boxes.

The D850 revolves around the star of the show, an all-new 45.7MP FX-format CMOS sensor, which has a back-illuminated design that is meant to improve clarity of higher-sensitivity shots, as well as improve readout speeds to benefit the continuous shooting and video capabilities. Like the D810, this new sensor’s design fully omits an optical low-pass filter, too, to help realize a bump in sharpness. In practice, the sensor really does live up to its hype. There is a noticeable increase in clarity from the new sensor’s design, and for my purposes of making large prints, the slight bump in actual resolution is very welcomed, too. While I mainly worked at mid- and low-sensitivity values, up to around ISO 800, I did fire off a few at the native limit of ISO 25600 and was pleasantly surprised at how well the color noise was handled despite the resolution of the sensor. However, this camera does excel at values below ISO 6400... and even has an ISO 64 setting to really benefit landscape shooters.

Complementing the sensor improvements is an equally impressive EXPEED 5 image processor which, besides helping to realize the increase in quality throughout the sensitivity range, also allows the D850 to be a competent camera for sports and events shooting. While something I don’t make use of often, it’s hard to not be impressed by the fact that this camera can shoot 45.7MP images at 7 fps for up to 51 consecutive raw frames. This figure can be boosted even further to 9 fps if you add the optional MB-D18 grip with an EN-EL18/b battery to realistically make it a camera worthwhile for sports and wildlife shooting.

Further reinforcing the D850’s speed and fast-moving subject shooting capabilities is a vastly upgraded autofocus system. Employing the same 153-point phase-detect system as the flagship D5, the D850 has a very wide network of focusing points, including 55 selectable ones, for greater compositional freedom and the ability to lock onto subjects and track them across the frame. Of the 153 total points, 99 of them are designated as cross-type, too, which benefits speed and accuracy when working in low-contrast, and generally dim, lighting. A dedicated AF engine handles focusing tasks for quick performance; however, the focus does not feel quite as speedy as the D5. Still, considering the intended applications for this camera, focusing always feels plenty fast and highly accurate.

The other arena the D850 has greatly improved upon, compared to previous versions, is with its inclusion of UHD 4K video recording—up to 30p—along with Full HD 1080p at 120 fps for slow motion playback. Also pleasing multimedia shooters, and bridging the gap between just high-resolution stills shooting and video recording, is an 8K time-lapse mode. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find the means for 8K playback currently, the D850 does also have the ability to produce 4K time lapses in-camera. And benefitting both interval modes is a silent interval timer and electronic shutter mechanism that produces no shutter noise nor contributes to wear on the shutter mechanism during shooting periods.

Delving into some of the areas that most excite me about the D850 are the body design and some of the smaller, more minute aspects of shooting. The physical design of the D850 is very much like the D810, and for that matter, the D800, but the grip does feel a bit deeper to me and easier to hold onto for a day out of shooting handheld. It also retains its magnesium-alloy construction and is still weather resistant. It utilizes a similar electronic shutter mechanism to the D810, which makes shooting with such a high-resolution camera a more positive experience. Compared to some of the earliest “ultra-high-resolution” DSLRs, say, over 30MP when it became noticeable that shutter shock and mirror slap were more visible due to the scrutiny these more detailed sensors provide, the D850 counters these effects with an updated shutter and mirror architecture. The more controlled, damped movements of these parts contribute to greater success when shooting handheld, especially with shutter speeds that border my hand-holdable limit of around 1/60th of a second.

One of the more noticeable changes in this new body is the incorporation of a larger pentaprism viewfinder, compared to previous D800-series models. The new finder has a 0.75x magnification, which may not seem like too much of an improvement over the D810’s 0.7x magnification, but in use it really impressed me. Manual focusing is simple and subjects take on an almost 3D quality due to how bright the finder felt. Coupled with the full 100% frame coverage, shooting with this reminded me why I was ever apprehensive to switch to an electronic viewfinder. This optical viewfinder was simply fun to look through and gives pertinence to the cliché of seeing things more romantically through the viewfinder of your camera. One potential downside to this new viewfinder, although I prefer this consequence, is that the larger size has led to the removal of the built-in pop-up flash. Since I far prefer to work with off-camera lighting, and typically do not use an on-camera flash as a commander or trigger, I enjoy the more streamlined look of the seamless pentaprism sans flash.

Tied into my love of the viewfinder is another feature that I cannot praise enough, which is the ability to shoot in the 4:5 aspect ratio, as well as a newly added 1:1 square aspect ratio. Without getting too personal about my general dislike for a DSLR-conventional 3:2 ratio, the fact that the D850 has this simple addition of boxier formats makes it fit my shooting style better. Relating this to the viewfinder, there is a new setting to gray-out the sides of the viewfinder when working in 4:5 or 1:1, rather than just having black frame indicator lines for these formats like in the D810 and D800. Now, 3:2 shooters may argue “why can’t you just shoot 3:2 and crop later?” and the answer is that a lot of photographers must be able to make final composition decisions in the viewfinder, and having this accurate viewfinder image really improves my ability to shoot in the format I like. And what’s better still, the D850 will also save your NEF files in the cropped ratio versus only the JPEGs being cropped with most other cameras.

Another improvement in terms of handling is an updated 3.2" 2.36m-dot LCD monitor, which is now a touchscreen and has a tilting design to benefit shooting from high and low angles. I didn’t spend too much time shooting with the LCD (because I was so enamored with the viewfinder) but the screen’s improvements were noticeable when reviewing imagery. Additionally, the D850 now also has Nikon’s SnapBridge wireless connectivity, which uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for sharing images or remotely controlling the camera from your mobile device.

Looking back at the time I got to spend with the D850, I can say my impressions are that this camera certainly does live up to our high expectations. On paper, the camera is nothing short of flawless, and in use it’s the smart, little additions that put it over the edge for me. A high-resolution, well-engineered sensor? Check. Intuitive controls, a beautiful viewfinder, and a nice screen? Check. Fast, fluid performance and multimedia versatility? Check. And what’s more? Being able to shoot and compose in 4:5, a built-in negative digitizer mode, improved time-lapse shooting, a Focus Shift mode, SnapBridge, weather-sealing...the list goes on and on. The D850 is the first DSLR that’s seriously making me regret my switch to mirrorless for my digital system.

What do you think of the D850? Does it live up to its hype? Which features excite you most? Will the D850 stop the DSLR-to-mirrorless leak? We’re curious of your impressions on what is likely the most anticipated DSLR of the year, post them in the Comments section, below.

2 Comments

"The D850 is the first DSLR that’s seriously making me regret my switch to mirrorless for my digital system"

Curious why you say this - especially because I just pre-ordered the Sony A7 R3 from B&H after seeing so many reviews comparing it to the D850.  Seems like it's a tie.  The Sony portability, faster fps, better auto focusing (especially with the eye detection), and ability to use almost any lens I have.  It seems to me that it's finally time for me to go mirrorless and you're suggesting maybe I shouldn't?  Help me understand if I made the wrong move before its too late!  I have been a Nikon shooter since high school - film to the D2 being the first digital.  I shoot primarily with the D5 as an industrial and corporate photographer.  The D800 sits in my bag for backup and 1080 second video camera.  Maybe I should reconsider and stick with Nikon?  Thanks for your thoughts.

Hi Joseph,

Keep in mind that this is very much my own opinion and based on my preferences for a camera, but the D850 felt a bit more special and was more enjoyable to use than the Sony a7R II I picked up about a year ago. Considering the points you bring up (fps and portability, mainly) the Sony has the D850 beat there. The continuous shooting speed isn't something I make use of, so it largely doesn't factor into my decision. The autofocus- I'm not so sure the a7R III will be a clear winner here, I think it will be a great comparison between the two and wouldn't be surprised to see the D850 have a slight edge over the Sony (just speculation). And the portability and ability to adapt lenses, yes hands-down Sony has this and these are what drove me to try mirrorless in the first place. Especially when working with smaller lenses, like adapted rangefinder lenses, the Sony can be a significantly smaller package. What I love so much about the D850 are a few small things that the Sony doesn't even compete with, namely the optical viewfinder, the camera's ergonomics, the way in which you operate/handle the Nikon, and then the simple touches like a 4:5 shooting mode and the viewfinder frame mask. As banal as these points may sound, they're what are tipping the D850 over the edge for me considering when you take those away, you're left with two incredible cameras that can compete head to head in almost every way. You'll be happy with either camera, they're both tremendous- you just need to assess what you're looking for more in a camera.

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