Photography / Hands-on Review

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!

Discussion 6

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

Lovely - remind me that my D850 order placed on August 25th that you took payment for that day is still outstanding. YES I'M READY FOR MINE - if only you would ship it.

<i>Lovely - remind me that my D850 order placed on August 25th that you took payment for that day is still outstanding. YES I'M READY FOR MINE - if only you would ship it.</i>

You know B+H is closed until Oct 15th, Sunday?

I'm sure B+H, or the direct competitors, are shipping based on your position in the queue.

Thanks for the help, Jay!

Hey Elly,

Thank you for the compliment!

Sorry for the delay in getting yours...sales on the D850 have been brisk, to say the least!

Thanks for shopping at B&H!

The ISO performance looks impressive. At dinner tonight, before the local camera club meeting, one of the members said that he has ordered the D850. Although I've been a Canon guy since 1980, I read the other camera reviews. I could've switch to Nikon when I bought my DSLR since my Canon FD lenses aren't compatible with the Canon EOS system. But it's the classic Chevy vs. Ford argument.

Hey Ralph,

The ISO performance was really great to see. The backside retentive side of me would wander the world at night shooting at ISO 64 and having especially long exposures when I could likely be shooting at ISO 200 and get the same results (and save time!).

The funny thing about technology is that cameras keep getting better and better. I've said it before, and I will say it again, eventually someone will be able to drive down a dark road in the American west, stick their smart phone out the window of a moving car, and get a perfectly good Milky Way photo or even star trails.

Don't forget about about Dodge!...I mean, Pentax. :)