Nikon D850 Field Test and Review

It's here! My D850 arrived this week and I have had a couple of chances to get out and shoot with it. Since it is a new, high-end camera on the market, I thought I would take a minute to share my reactions and thoughts on this camera. Now that the camera has been released for almost a couple of weeks now, there are plenty of reviews out there that compare the D850 to every other Nikon camera, as well as any of the competition's cameras. In the coming weeks, we'll see more scientific lab reviews that put the D850 through its paces in a very controlled environment. This review, however, is meant to be a real-world, gut-reaction commentary containing my thoughts after a couple of shoots with the camera.

I have to say that I am thoroughly impressed with the quality that this camera can output. Here is a brief rundown of the D850's specs:

  • 45.75MP full frame Backlit CMOS sensor
  • Tiltable LCD (3.2″, 2.36 million dots) with full-functioning touchscreen
  • Memory card slots: one XQD and one SD (UHS-II)
  • AF system from the D5 (153 points)
  • Back illuminated buttons
  • Joystick selector
  • Built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
  • Silent shooting mode using electronic shutter in live view
  • Native ISO range: 64-25,600
  • 7fps without grip, 9fps with grip (MB-D18a battery grip and the EN-EL18a battery)
  • 51 images RAW buffer (full resolution at 14-bit RAW)
  • 0.75x optical viewfinder
  • 180k RGB meter
  • No Anti-aliasing filter
  • Built-in focus stacking (capture only)
  • RAW sizes: small, medium, large
  • Approx. Dimensions (Width x Height x Depth): 146mm x 124mm x 78.5mm
  • Approx. Weight; 915g

A more complete spec list is available from Nikon USA's website.

Some Test Shots:

I took a little time yesterday putting the new camera through its paces at a local park, where a couple of great egrets let me photograph them. The goal of this exercise was really to get used to using the camera in the field. It takes me a little while to get familiar with button locations without looking and to be able to see in my mind's what the final image will look like.

Below are some images I shot using the new D850 + Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E. As you'll notice, most of these images are cropped from a larger original, as is often the case with wildlife photography. The images were shot in RAW (NEF) and converted to DNG using Adobe's converter tool (since Lightroom does not yet support for the D850). The images have been processed the images in Lightroom (mostly tone and color adjustments) and are here exported as JPEGs to half their original size at 72 dpi for the web. 

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160" (cropped from original)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160" (cropped from original)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/125"

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/125"

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/200" (cropped from original)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/200" (cropped from original)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160" (cropped from original)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160" (cropped from original)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160"

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160"

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160" (cropped from original above)

D850 + 200-500mm f5.6E @ 500mm, f5.6, ISO 64, 1/160" (cropped from original above)

My conclusions on using the D850:

Much of the attention being given to the D850 is for its sensor, which features a 45.7 million pixels with back-side illumination. Early reports are showing that this sensor produces less noise than its predecessors, especially at higher ISOs. In terms of noise reduction, Nikon suggested early on that it would be 1 stop better performance. From my experience, I am seeing some improvements from the last generation of cameras, but not quite 1-stop better to my eye. Other reviews, some with more scientific comparisons, are showing the same results that I am seeing. I will say that, from everything I have seen, the D850 appears to have better color rendering than the D750 and the D810. The dynamic range is as good or better than the D810 at base ISO (64). It appears that the new BSI sensor may be allowing for better gain and more saturation than the D810, despite the smaller pixel size. This should mean better pictures out of camera, the implications of which could mean an easier, quicker workflow in post processing and more latitude in being able to push the image with adjustments in post. Despite a significant increase in the number of pixels (approximately 25% more than the D810), it maintains performance as good or better than D810 from all accounts.

Compared to the capabilities of its D8xx series predecessors, the D850 has a faster burst rate with large buffer (51 images at full resolution, 14-bit). Additionally, the D850 adds 4K video to a D8xx series body, something introduced with the D500. Unlike the D500, however, the D850 can shoot full-frame 4K video (as well as in crop mode), allowing the camera to capture more light when shooting video. Lastly, improving upon the previous D8xx series models, the D850 adds the superior autofocus system with 153 focus points from D5 and D500. My initial tests with the autofocus show very good 3D tracking and a higher number of images with properly locked-on focus.

Besides the new sensor and internal performance improvements, some of the most meaningful upgrades for many users will be those related to usability. Here is a list of the some of the meaningful usability upgrades (in my opinion):

  • Electronic shutter and silent shooting
  • Tilt screen with touch screen
  • Larger optical viewfinder (0.75x) - largest in Nikon FX camera
  • Physical design/ergonomics/handling (e.g., better grip design)
  • Illuminated buttons
  • Joystick selector
  • Focus peaking
  • Focus stacking
  • New WB mode preserves tones in cold lights (mostly a workflow saver)
  • One XQD card slot & One SD (USH-II) card slot
  • Built-in Bluetooth and Wifi (connection to SnapBridge app)

These changes should result in a better workflow, a more reliable output, and a better all around experience for the photographer. For instance, the electronic shutter can allow for less mirror shake, which can mean sharper images in certain situations. Another consequence of the electronic shutter is the (truly) silent shooting in live view mode. Silent shooting will be a major upgrade for event and wildlife photographers.

Having mostly used a D750 lately, the upgrade from that camera is quite significant. While most say that the quality is comparable to the D810 with mostly usability upgrades, coming from a camera with about half the resolution power of the D850, the difference is easily noticeable. This statement is particularly true for wildlife photography--I am able to crop down the image to better fill the frame with creatures that I just can't get close enough to. The same use case will benefit me as an event photographer of staged events (i.e., classical concerts, opera, theatre).

Even the small things make a big difference. On the D750, the mirror was extremely loud, even in quiet mode. I love the low-light capability of the D750, but I really have to shoot as far away from audience members as I can to avoid distracting them. With the D850, the regular shooting mode sounds almost half the volume of the D750's quiet volume. Even from there, I have two options for even quieter shooting-quiet mode or silent live-view shooting.

Also, in event photography, I often make use of the tilt screen on the D750. The tilt screen on the D850 feels much more sturdy and snaps into place when in the closed position. I like that sense of security for when I am wearing it around my neck or letting it hang around my waist. A further benefit of the D850 tilt screen is that it has twice the number of pixels for display and is a full-functioning touch screen. Punching through menus are much quicker with the touch capabilities. Focusing and releasing the shutter with a touch of the screen in live-view mode might prove to be convenient when silent shooting an event from a tripod (I haven't done a real-world application of that feature yet).

Some detractors are saying that it isn't worth upgrading from the D810. That is, of course, a very subjective statement. The worthiness of an upgrade depends on which features you would make the use of the most. Do most photographers really need 45.7 million pixels? Probably not, but they are nice to have in a lot of situations. So far, the new sensor and lack of an antialiasing filter have pointed out some sloppiness in my technique, especially with a super telephoto lens. (That was nothing that being a little more careful stabilizing the camera and double-checking settings didn't quickly fix.) Still, what those extra pixels offer me is more flexibility with the shot. For instance, when shooting an staged event, I can shoot wide at full frame to capture the entire scene on stage and still have plenty of resolution to crop the image down to create a completely differently composed image (basically two or more images from one). That extra resolution means that I can shoot that wide shot at full-frame with the D850 and still have as much or more resolution than the crop-body D500 (or even the D750 at full frame). Where I am very impressed is that, in real-world situations, so far I am not noticing a difference from the D750 in terms of sacrificing low-light and high-ISO performance, nor am I giving up anything from dynamic range (not to mention the DR gains at ISO 64 on the D850). So much of what I have seen from several nay-sayers is that the D850 doesn't show significant advancements in technology from D810. However, I would argue that 25% more resolution typically comes at the sacrifice of image quality (e.g., dynamic range and light-gathering capability). Despite its higher resolution, the D850 has arguably better image quality than the D810, a camera which is still an industry leader in that regard. Add to that all of the usability upgrades I outlined above, and this purchase was a no-brainer for me.

The hype around the D850 is still going strong. One common thing keeps popping up in these reviews: that the D850 is best multipurpose camera in Nikon's lineup, if not in the digital camera market in general. That is positive news for Nikon. The D850 covers a wide gamut of shooting situations while maintaining professional features and great image quality to an extent that no other camera in the Nikon lineup does (or most any other DSLR on the market does). For that reason, I think this will be a camera remembered for years as a innovative game-changer in the DSLR photography world, and a product that could very well turn things around for a company that showed signs of trouble earlier this year. One thing is for sure, this camera is certainly shaking things up in photography forums and social sites.  Only time will tell what kind of mark this newest camera leaves on Nikon's storied 100-year history and for the digital photography world going forward.