On paper, the Nikon D850 promises much, it’s certainly a camera that I think Nikon have aimed to disrupt the whole market with by seemingly packing in as much as it possibly can. There are one or two other manufacturers out there lately who have fallen into the rather questionable habit of trying to pass off ageing tech in a ‘new’ body but with the D850 Nikon feels like they are going all out to deliver a dynamite combination of speed, resolution and flexibility. Amongst the questions I will attempt to answer here is does that spec sheet deliver real world improved outcomes over what has come before, and how?
Context & Background
It should be obvious from this website that I mainly shoot landscapes, so clearly that will be the main subject focus here as usual. In particular, the 45MP resolution on offer from the D850 lends itself perfectly to this remit, delivering highly detailed files. My experience with Nikon goes back many, many years now and I’ve owned a whole series of their DSLRs and a huge number of lenses. More recently these bodies have included the D800, D800E, D810, Df, D500 and now of course the D850 so I’m fairly well placed to make comparisons of feature sets and image quality. Until recently I retained three of these – the D850, a D500 and a 720nm converted infrared D800 for my day to day shooting but since originally writing this piece, and thanks to the D850, my D500 became surplus to requirements and has now been sold. I should also say in passing that I’ve plenty of experience with the Fuji X Mirrorless system too, though I no longer retain any of it.
Before picking up the D850 soon after its release in 2017, my ‘main’ landscape camera was the Nikon D810. It was in many ways the camera that everyone really wanted the D800 to be when it was originally released back in 2012. The D810 is a highly refined shooting experience compared to the D800, has a nicely dampened shutter release, delivers that wonderful ISO64 setting for ultra clean files, has an improved rear LCD display and is generally a lovely DSLR to use. I suppose until someone puts a pile of improvements in front of you in a new package it is the sort of camera that many people would continue to be highly satisfied with.
But then things inevitably evolve. Nikon definitely disrupted the marketplace with the rather unexpected release of the D500 right at the start of 2016 in which it grabbed some of the top of the line pro level features from the Nikon D5 and created a DX (crop) sensor high-performance 20.9MP 10 FPS beast at an altogether accessible price point, intended for the mass market. As a landscape photographer I always want a secondary body because frankly the risk of damage to gear is elevated given the occasional dangerous environments and outdoor shooting scenarios that you can encounter. Until the D500 was released I had been using the Df in that role but while the Df produced gorgeous files it was also a deeply flawed and frustrating user experience on many levels all at the same time. The D500 looked to have resolved many of those flaws to me (autofocus and handling being particularly significant improvements) and so I traded my Df and I really haven’t looked back.
In fact, the D500 was so good, something unexpected started to happen – the D500 was becoming my DSLR of choice over the D810 because it just did things so much better, despite having a significant resolution disadvantage. The sheer speed capability and zip about the camera with XQD was a huge revelation, the touchscreen provided a much improved shooting experience while big autofocus, white balance and punchy colour output improvements made me genuinely start to wish I could just somehow have those features combined with the greater 36MP resolution of the D810 along with its ISO advantage. If only….
Does the D850 prove dreams come true and you can really have it all? I would have loved to have been in that Nikon design meeting when someone said “Why don’t we try and make a camera that brings the D500 and D810 together in a single package?”. And then someone agreed. When the spec list was initially leaked to the world I don’t think many camera lovers could believe that Nikon were about to do just that – take the power and sheer performance of features drawn from the D5/D500 and combine those with a higher resolution body built on the pedigree of the D810. Could it be we finally had it all, the goldilocks camera; speed, precision, high resolution and handling?
Presence, Handling & Basic Usability
So let’s get down to brass tacks with the D850 and start with the outside and work our way in…. Out of the box, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that first impressions are that the D850 honestly doesn’t look too different to anything Nikon has made before in this series. When sitting alongside my D500 in particular I could barely tell the two apart by sight and it’s definitely more D500 than D810 in its shape and physical presence. There is only a small height and shape difference when you get to the top of the camera where changes are just about apparent, the D850 is more angular with a pinch of extra height in order to facilitate the new pentaprism viewfinder.
As I reported at the start of this piece I’ve used a plethora of Nikon bodies but I also mentioned the Fuji X System. One of the reasons why I didn’t get on with Fuji at all was that I couldn’t get my hand comfortably around them (I used an X-E2 and X-T1); they were just too small and if I added a more substantial lens up front the X System was a very poorly balanced experience in my view. To a degree, the Nikon Df suffers from a similar narrow grip problem too which is where the D500 totally delivers, and yes, the ‘D500 grip experience’ is carried into the D850, and marginally improved upon. It’s a fantastic substantial feel which you can comfortably hold with larger lenses whilst giving the confidence of being very well balanced, a joy in truth.
There are weight differences which are more apparent however. There is a bit of additional heft about the D850 and for comparison I’ve listed the respective weights together below (all include a loaded EN-EL15 battery):
Nikon D500 – 860g
Nikon D810 – 980g
Nikon D850 – 1015g
Sony A7RIII – 657g + Metabones Adapter 193g (Nikon F to Sony E Mount) = Total 850g
Now, to anyone other than the most sensitive of people, the D850 won’t feel any different to the D810 weight wise but holding a D500 in one hand and the D850 in the other with my eyes closed, I can just about tell which one is which. I put the 155g difference down to the body make up – the D850 comes with a magnesium alloy shell with advanced weather sealing (similar in construction to the D810) while the D500 definitely has more lighter weight plastics used in its bones. Speaking of bones, I thought I would throw in the weight difference with the Sony A7RIII here too, with an accompanying Metabones adapter (which would be necessary in order to use Nikon glass on it). Much is made of the ‘vast’ weight difference between Mirrorless and DSLR bodies but in truth as Mirrorless has matured, each iteration has gained more and more weight. The Sony is a case in point – once a Metabones adapter is applied the difference is a measly 165g. That is utterly insignificant in a backpack and equalised or obliterated once you start adding Sony’s rather bloated but nonetheless highly rated G Master lenses. The day of reckoning for DSLRs has not arrived yet – indeed there is little to pick between the Sony A7RIII and Nikon D850 from a feature set point of view, though handling and usability are another discussion altogether which Nikon wins hands down in my view. For now if you’re already invested in Nikon’s glass there is still very little that is truly enticing about switching to Sony. If you shoot Canon, that is an altogether different discussion given the relatively mediocre sensor performance and feature set which is well behind the curve of other manufacturers now.
One particular component which is all new in the D850 is its optical viewfinder. It’s technical specification here is that the pentaprism delivers a 0.75x magnification which won’t mean much to most people without a frame of reference. Nikon say that this is the biggest and brightest viewfinder in a Nikon camera yet and from my point of view it is indeed rather gorgeous. I don’t really have anything else to say about this other than from my point of view it remains a key advantage over mirrorless cameras. If you want the ‘mirrorless experience’ you can switch to Live View and Bob’s your Auntie, the best of both worlds.
I’m going to cover the LCD Touchscreen in its own section further below but I should mention the basic accessibility of controls right here. Once again Nikon doesn’t try to do anything too ambitious with its control layout on the D850 and sticks to a very tried and tested button formula which works fantastically well for me. In designing the D850 they pretty much took an identical button layout from the D500 and applied it, including the splendid autofocus point selection joystick which the D810 lacked on the back and the dedicated ISO button on the top near the shutter button which I love. (By the way, you can program the D800 and D810 to change the function of the Movie Record button to do exactly the same). The only thing I continue to take issue with here is the rather confusing application of an ‘i’ button which resides directly next to the ‘info’ button. Even as I write this now I can’t tell you which button does what until you press one. That single nuance aside, all of the main functionality is easily accessible as always and Nikon have a very nicely tuned layout for me.
Another physical feature the D850 inherited from the D500 are buttons which light up on the top and down the back left of the camera (though notably not the buttons to the right of the LCD on the back). Pre-dawn shoots are positively improved here for me – less guesswork and more certainty in very low light improves the shooting experience. Once again, it’s a very useful feature that the D810 didn’t enjoy and another tick for the D850.
One of the key physical differences I should mention between the D810 and the D850 is the loss of the pop-up flash. It’s true that one or two people will lament this change by Nikon maybe but from most landscape photographer’s point of view I expect it represented a weak point in the D810. It’s sheer presence on the camera compromised weather sealing in my view (I used to regularly mop moisture from under the flash unit after rain or seascape shoots) and so I am very pleased to see it gone. Other opinions will apply here of course(!) but the D500’s design had already done away with it so in my view it also made perfect sense that this particular trend would continue. One or two may find it hard to agree but I genuinely see the removal of the pop-up flash as progress, not a retro-step which downgrades the spec of the D850 in any way.
My verdict on Presence, Handling, & Basic Usability: The D850 definitely has a fantastic grip and all over solid quality feel to it. The design is robust and I see the non-inclusion of the pop-up flash of the D800/D810 as an advantage adding to that strength, but others might see that differently. One or two might find the overall weight unappealing but if so looking at a DSLR in the first place probably isn’t the right choice for you. For those that want the best quality this segment of the camera market has to offer, I challenge you not to be happy with the D850 – it delivers a superb viewfinder experience and all of the right controls are in all of the right places, indeed it improves on everything that has gone before it for me. A big win in this section of the review overall, especially when compared to the D810.
The Touchscreen Experience
More improvements here for the D850. Nikon took the excellent D500 application of the tilting LCD and built on it. This is where some product differentiation starts to show again between models;
- The D810 has a fixed LCD screen with no touch controls at all. In itself it was very much a big improvement over the original D800/E in Live View and enjoyed a 3.2” 1,229,000 dot resolution.
- The D500 by comparison to the D810 has a nicely robust tilting 3.2” LCD but enjoyed a resolution boost to 2,359,000 dots, almost doubling the look of image sharpness on the back of the camera. Another big introduction here was touch controls but significantly these do not work in menus, something which I think Nikon could potentially address with Firmware (I won’t hold my breath though!). It is only really useful in landscape orientation though, it doesn’t tilt and flip for use in portrait orientation.
- Finally, the D850 also enjoys the same predictably strong tilting 3.2” LCD and 2,359,000 super-sharp resolution but now has additional touch controls not only for Live View use but for the camera menus too. Just like the D500 you can touch to focus, touch to release the shutter, pinch and swipe controls (just like your smartphone) in image review etc. It’s still only really best used in landscape orientation but it all adds up to a very predictable and tidy experience – I love it and it was one of my key reasons to buy the camera.
The D850 solution is inevitably the most rounded and usable of all three, so much so I became somewhat irritated that my D500 didn’t have quite the same functionality because it’s definitely the right experience on the D850 and I’d been spoiled by the improvement. It has been said down the years that tilt screens are a point of weakness and could easily break. In my experience Nikon’s implementation couldn’t make this further from the truth – it’s definitely NOT a flimsy execution and I have no concerns whatsoever. There are plenty of videos on YouTube of photographers swinging their Nikon by the flip-out screen (not something I would generally recommend!) but these just go to support what I’m talking about. I should say that I also frequent one or two photography forums and I haven’t seen a single complaint of LCD screen failure or damage at all in the D500 or D850.
Just as a side point, I put a GGS Larmor LCD protector on my touchscreen to add to its general defence (I did this with my D500 too) – I’ve had a situation on a previous camera where I was pleased it had been there. There is no change in touchscreen responsiveness with this additional protection though obviously you add anything like this at your own ‘risk’.
Some might cry foul here based on my scathing assessment of the pop-up flash on the D810 being a weakness but the truth is that the flip out screen closes very securely to the camera back – you wouldn’t necessarily know it was a tilt screen unless someone showed you how to pull it out. The D850 and D500 share the same robustness here and for landscape photographers like me means I can get really low without having to lie in the undergrowth or puddles. It’s a very welcome addition indeed and a massive improvement over the D810 which lacks all of these features.
My verdict on the Touchscreen Experience: Nikon have implemented an excellent solution with its D850 touchscreen. There is little to complain about – resolution is sharp, responsiveness is predictable and accurate and the tilting capability makes for much easier usage (in landscape orientation at least). You can now access menus as well as Live View controls and its touchscreen is as good an implementation as I have in my iPhone which can only be the best possible reference for Nikon here.
A few minutes on Memory Cards
This might seem like a bit of an odd thing to focus in on but all will become clear in a moment. When Nikon decided the spec for the D850, they once again took the D500 model and replicated the memory card choices – two slots for resiliency or overflow (my preference is for resiliency), one being dedicated to the XQD format and one to the latest UHS-II SD card format. The problem here is that at present both slots operate at different maximum speeds and there’s a bit of debate across the internet about Nikon’s continued preference in respect of the use of XQD.
So far, Nikon have very successfully used the XQD card format in the D4s, D5, D500 and now the D850. I see XQD as a super-fast data card format delivering (at the time of writing) a maximum of around 440MBs per second. That’s a whopping 4Gbits/s of data transfer potential and make no mistake that’s HUGE speed and power. All of this muscle is of course needed to facilitate the native 7 frames per second (FPS) bursts of 45MP images, up to 9 FPS with the additional MB-D18 grip and EN-EL18 battery combo.
So what’s the issue? The issue is one of potential supply issues right now. The story goes that Nikon got together with Sony and Sandisk to develop the XQD format, yet Sandisk still don’t make an XQD card for reasons I can’t explain. Lexar did however enter the market and manufacture these cards right up until they closed their retail division recently, leaving Sony, as the sole supplier. Curiously Lexar have re-emerged claiming they will now continue to produce XQD after all, but for how long who knows. Some see the whole situation as problematic and I can understand why, a narrow market is rarely good news for consumers where specialist items are concerned. The rather quizzical situation is confused further by the fact that Sony (despite being one of the key partners in designing this fantastic card) have not implemented XQD in even the recent release of the A7R MkIII, reserving the cards for only a handful of their high-end video cameras. Bottom line – do I really care about all of this? In a word, no, but it’s context worth pointing out I think. Cards look like they are available at reasonably fair prices and are not in short supply. I personally use Lexar cards in my D500 and D850 for both the XQD and UHS-II SD slot and I can highly recommend them while they are still available. A 64GB card has capacity for around 640 lossless compressed RAW files on the D850.
Here’s the rub though: whether you use XQD or UHS-II SD (or both together), the best cards with highest write speeds unlock the full performance of the D850 and turn it into a lightning fast proposition. It’s spectacular. Don’t put slow cards into this camera because you will positively kill its potential – I shoot with a Lexar 2933x (440MB/s) XQD card in slot 1 and the Lexar 2000x (300MB/s) UHS-II SD card in slot 2. Fast cards ensure that the buffer empties quickly so for those who are trigger happy they will get the most out of it by buying the fastest cards possible. Frankly the 7fps (9 with grip) performance of the D850 absolutely trounces the D810, the D810 is not in the same league at all and these card choices enhance the speed of operation in the camera significantly including image review, download, in-camera re-touching and so on.
My verdict on Memory Cards: Yes, I would much rather actually have both slots utilise the same card format but in real world shooting it’s still a very high performance experience regardless, vastly improved over the D810 and nothing at all to complain about. Just perhaps buy enough XQD card capacity to keep you good for a while…
Let’s get into image quality and the shooting experience now, which is absolutely critical.
Sensor Resolution and ISO Performance
Nikon created a brand new 45MP Back-Side Illuminated (BSI) sensor for the D850 and suggested there would be visible improvement that came with that package. Pinning sensor resolution and ISO performance together for this part of the review is therefore important because these aspects of the camera usually trade off fairly heavily against each other.
Anyone investigating this end of the DSLR market should already understand the reason why lower resolution cameras perform better at higher ISO (and if you don’t you had better look it up elsewhere first!) which is why the 16MP Nikon Df, with its hand-me-down D4 sensor performs so beautifully at higher ISO and why the D810 struggles to deliver usable quality images over ISO6400 (my opinion of course). Resolution and High ISO continue to be in contention no matter how good the implementation is, though clearly as time moves on and technology improves every camera company is seeking the holy grail of good quality High ISO with the benefits of higher resolution. The question is, did Nikon really manage to pull this feat off and improve the performance over the D810?
Well, my answer is yes, and no. I’m really not sitting on the fence here, it just depends what your definition of ‘improvement’ is. Some people are looking for the unicorn ‘one stop improvement’ with every camera release which frankly was never likely here and has definitely not been delivered. However, the way I see things is that Nikon took the D810’s excellent class leading 36MP sensor (which Canon shooters would still probably trade a kidney for!) and re-engineered it to deliver a 9MP resolution bump to 45MP. That’s a 25% pixel level boost which I think is pretty significant in its own right. Nikon not only delivered this boost while protecting the lower ISO performance (which would have been a REAL concern to me if they hadn’t) but in addition, from what I can see, also managed a marginal higher ISO improvement (which is subtle, but present). Probably the more significant improvement is Nikon managed to deal with the removal of the magenta cast that is usually present in blacks and is experienced at high ISO settings in the vast majority of digital cameras. I’m not clear whether they managed to deal with this at a circuitry level (benefits of the BSI sensor perhaps) or whether it’s dealt with via software as the RAW file is recorded but whichever way you look at it, that is also an improvement.
For landscape purposes the camera operates at its optimum level at ISO 64 where it continues to produce super clean files with huge available dynamic range (a whopping 14.8 EV). I can certainly see the resolution advantage over the D810 on my 5k iMac screen but whether that translates to even the largest of prints is debateable. What I do know is that this performance is definitely real competition for certain Medium Format cameras making the D850 look like a bargain in real terms.
My verdict on Sensor Resolution & ISO Performance: Nikon may not have delivered immediately noticeable vast improvements in image quality but that does not mean significant improvements have not been delivered over a camera like the Nikon D810, a DSLR which already provided outstanding image quality, particularly at low ISO. For me, a resolution boost to 45MP whilst retaining its world class low ISO performance was already an achievement but there are high ISO enhancements too which makes the D850 sensor the benchmark against which all other camera manufacturers will want to compete.
Focus Modes & Tuning
As part of the hybrid D810/D500 collision approach to building the D850, it inherited the same Autofocus (AF) module used in the D500 (and D5). It has 153 AF points (99 of those being highly responsive cross-type) and the camera also has its own dedicated AF processor which in theory speeds everything up (which it definitely does).
My experience with all of the D800 series is that autofocus never felt that ‘secure’. Low light performance could be hit and miss, and tracking was always good without being amazing. The performance of outer AF points could sometimes be unreliable too, depending on which lens was used. All of this experience changed when I got my hands on the D500 and so I was pretty excited to hear that the D850 would get the same module.
I’m not going to lie, it’s not something I’ve extensively tested in anger so far and a lot of the time my subject matter doesn’t really push the camera in this respect, however I do see a reliability improvement for sure over the D810 so far. If you’re really interested in the finer detail of AF performance it may be best to seek out a D850 review from say a wildlife photographer who can go to town on this particular element but suffice to say I’m very satisfied regardless.
However, I’m not throwing in the towel just here on this section because there are indeed other exciting changes to the focus system that are genuinely big reasons why the D850 was an easy choice for me:
- Manual Focus: A really big deal this for me – as a landscaper I have three all manual lenses; two Zeiss offerings and a Nikon Tilt Shift PC-e. The news is Nikon finally implemented focus peaking in the D850, a feature which is usually synonymous with mirrorless cameras and finally means that accurate manual focussing can be easily achieved (Live View only). Often new features need a couple of generations before they are great, but I have to say that from where I’m sitting they executed it perfectly first time…
Basically, instead of just using the rangefinder style ‘green dot’ focussing method for manual focus through the viewfinder, you can now switch to Live View, activate Focus Peaking and select a red, blue, yellow or white highlight to demonstrate exactly where in the scene you are focussing and how much depth of field you have. These different colour highlight options make it a breeze to use, particularly fantastic for Tilt Shift and narrow depth of field lenses like my all manual Zeiss 100mm f/2. This is genuinely a significant game changing feature on its own for anyone who loves to shoot manual primes, and critical to get spot on with so much resolution at your disposal.
- Focus Shift: I finally have a real complaint here because I take umbrage with the name of this feature. This option broadly allows you to set a focus point in a scene and will then automatically ‘shift’ an autofocus lens (it must be a G or latest E AF-S series lens, not an older AF-D series with a screw drive by the way) by a number of steps which you determine or until it reaches infinity. The end objective is a focus stack which delivers extended depth of field. It doesn’t combine the frames in camera, you have to do all of this yourself afterwards in a program like Photoshop.
Nikon should have just called it ‘focus stacking’ to avoid confusion (I suspect there was probably a copyright issue here somewhere however, hence the mediocre alternative name), it’s a poor use of confused terminology but otherwise this is an absolute boon for landscape (and macro). Critically this is a fully intuitive feature – as soon as you need instructions, improvements like this are lost and thankfully Nikon implemented this well in my view. You may also wish to take a look at a software product called Helicon Focus, it’s probably the focus stacking tool of choice for those who spend a lot of time doing these.
- New Multiple Exposure Enhancements: Nikon fully developed this and didn’t really say anything about it. It’s finally on par with the Canon experience with a whole pile of new options and that’s great news for trying more creative approaches. This is a genuinely unique implementation in the whole Nikon lineup, the D500 and D5 didn’t get this improvement. If you’re interested in a more artistic use of your camera then this is a great feature to investigate, I’ll be making much more use of this going forward.
- Automatic AF Fine tuning: This is another useful option that was implemented in the D500 but in truth it’s not all that automatic. Judgement is still required but what matters is that with resolution pushing upwards from the D810, fine tuning your lenses remains very important. Of nine lenses I own, seven of them required a +/- adjustment in AF fine tune so it’s a critical part of the arsenal in ensuring the best possible outcomes for your images.
My verdict on Focus Modes & Tuning: Autofocus has become a lot more predictable with the D850, performance is on par with my D500 experience and well ahead of my former D810. What makes as much impact here for my landscape discipline though is the simple yet highly effective implementation of focus peaking which is a really big deal and something I’ve waited to see for years from Nikon. In effect this gives you the ‘mirrorless advantage’ in a DSLR. The new ‘Focus Shift’ mode makes focus stacking a less cumbersome process while brand new enhancements to Multiple Exposure is more of a catch-up with Canon than anything unique. Automatic AF Fine Tuning rounds off a fabulous package of measures in the D850 which all add to its usability and contribute to assisting in getting at the best quality outcomes for photographs.
Almost as a post-script here I’m just going to write a couple of words on Lens Performance because there is a lot of questionable information on the internet about this. Some people are worried that their lenses are ‘not good enough’ or are ‘out-resolved’ by a higher resolution sensor such as that belonging to the D850. This is simply untrue. I’ve used 35 year old Nikon AI-s primes on the D810 with no Image Quality issues whatsoever. The real world way of looking at this is actually very simple; with increased resolution, ALL lenses will actually look better but there are undoubtedly some lenses that absolutely shine.
In my case, and I put this list here purely for information only without recommendation, the top performers so far have been as below:
Zeiss 25mm f/2 ZF.2 (manual)
Nikon 45mm f/2.8 PC-e (manual)
Zeiss 100mm f/2 ZF.2 (manual)
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR
Nikon 70-200mm f/4G VR
Congratulations for getting to the end of this piece, I hope the information here is helpful. I haven’t reviewed every single aspect of the camera because some of this stuff has been done to death elsewhere already, I’ve only included things which I think are of genuine consequence and anything else not mentioned is either untested, of no interest to me or I simply don’t see my opinion as adding any value to what is already known.
Honestly, I can only provide a very high recommendation for the D850. It’s an overall package that offers a very significant list of improvements over my D810, which I’ve now sold. It certainly is a D500 on resolution steroids to me, though ultimately the D850 proved to be that holy grail ‘goldilocks’ camera and I’ve sold my D500 too, retaining only my specialist infrared converted D800 alongside the D850. The D810 was a great ride while it lasted – the sensor set the bar high for what was to follow but I’m pleased to say that Nikon delivered plenty of all-round improvements which are justified by the pomp that has greeted the D850.
I’ll leave you with a bit of a Peak District (England) image gallery for you to look at which hopefully highlights the quality of the D850…