At the same time that users are moving away from big, heavy, DSLR cameras to mirrorless systems or even smartphones, DSLRs continue to improve and offer some exciting payoffs for those willing to stick it out. This year has seen several exciting models up and down the price range from all the major vendors. For Nikon shooters, the midrange Nikon D7500 that we reviewed over the summer is hard to beat. But the new Nikon D850 is the one turning heads, as it pushes image quality and performance boundaries. I’ve been shooting with one extensively since the day they shipped, and almost without exception I’m impressed.
The Nikon D850 by the Numbers
Like horsepower for cars, resolution is still — rightly or wrongly — the first spec everyone notices in a new camera. At 45.7MP, the D850 definitely delivers. Critics say it over-delivers, as image files of that size can be tough to work with. Fortunately, it offers a variety of options for reducing the resolution or quality of captured images — even allowing you to capture RAW images at lower resolution if you want.
The other issue with massive resolution is typically performance. That has been my biggest gripe with the Nikon D800 and D810. They just aren’t fast enough for some of the action I need to be able to photograph. So the 7fps of the Nikon D850 is both technically amazing given the resolution, and very helpful for those of us who need performance sometimes. You will even be able to bump it up to 9fps with the optional MB-D18 grip. Clearly, if you spend all day doing something that needs a massive frame rate, you’d still be better off with the Nikon D5. But that model is a lot more money, a lot larger, and doesn’t have the same resolution.
The AF system is more extensive and faster than the one in the D810, with an impressive 153 AF points, including 99 cross-type (that can detect lines either horizontally or vertically). In my testing, it is indeed faster and more capable than the one in my D810. I was able to focus on flying objects moving in front of trees and other foliage, while with the D810 I often had to pick up focus against a clean sky background. The optical viewfinder is also amazingly large and bright, which helps verify whether you’re really locking on to a subject.
Improved Video and Connectivity
Nikon has also bumped up the camera’s video specs, with 4K video at up to 30fps (using H.264 encoding). It’ll do 1080p at 120fps for moderate slow motion video. The built-in mic is stereo, although of course serious videographers will use the external mic input. The camera offers the latest version of Nikon’s SnapBridge connectivity software, although it is still hard to use, and won’t do much to help you transfer high-resolution images.
The camera is almost the same size and weight as Nikon’s previous full-frame “mid-size” Pro DSLRs. At 2 pounds, it’s one ounce heavier than the D810, and at 5.7 x 4.9 x 3.1 inches it feels just a little larger. It features an SD slot and an XQD slot. Personally, I’d prefer simpler and cheaper dual SD slots, but I understand that to get maximum performance out of such a high-resolution camera, the greater potential speed of XQD is worth the hassle. However, when I performed the simple test of firing off a burst of 14-bit RAW images onto a 2933x Lexar XQD card and a 2000x Lexar SD card, I didn’t notice much difference. The XQD cards are certainly much more rugged, though, which is a major plus for anyone using them in rough conditions.
Each new bump in sensor quality and resolution makes me go “wow.” I remember when I first got a D2X, and then when I reviewed the Canon 1DS, and when I reviewed the D800. The move up from the D810 to the D850 isn’t as dramatic as some of those, but when paired with a sharp lens, the D850 certainly delivers. It’s hard to say if it’s really giving medium format quality a run for its money, but it’s also clear there aren’t too many use cases that need to go much further than the D850 does in resolution.
Its massive resolution does mean that individual pixels on the D850 are smaller than on other Nikon DSLRs. That results in increased noise in the shadow areas if you pixel peep. However, you couldn’t even zoom in that far with almost any other DSLR, and if you process the image to scale the image down to a resolution similar to what you’d have on a different camera, the noise will tend to fade away. So you can effectively use the D850 as a nearly medium-format camera for scenes with great lighting and not a huge amount of shadow detail required, or a more traditional DSLR by scaling the image down to a more typical resolution.
Here are some representative images that I captured with my Nikon D850. The ones in San Francisco used a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and the ones at Stanford used either the Sigma 24mm or 85mm ART lenses:
Next, here is a sample image (below) to give you some idea of what the camera can accomplish. The first is the full RAW image rendered into a JPEG with some default Adobe Camera Raw settings. The second is a crop of a tiny portion of the image to give you a sense of the detail captured. The third shows how much data is in the image, as I’ve processed it a bit to bring out more shadow detail. You should be able to click on the image to see the full-resolution version. The image was taken with the super-sharp Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART lens set to f/4.8 at ISO 200:
Compared with the D810, the higher resolution of the D850 does yield sharper images, if you have a sufficiently sharp lens. As a result, images from the D850 also look like they have less noise, but when the technical benchmarks are done, I expect it will be very similar in that department. Its smaller pixels make dynamic range a challenge, but Nikon appears to have delivered DR at least the same as on the D810, and with better color accuracy in the shadows. Interestingly, the sensor in the D850 was designed entirely by Nikon, and is the first back-side illuminated (BSI) sensor it has used in a DSLR. The BSI design helps facilitate the high-speed readout needed for 7fps at its massive resolution, and the higher-performance video formats.
Nikon has made some nice changes to the control layouts of recent model DSLRs. In particular, the ISO button is now within reach of your shutter finger. That’s really helpful when light levels or subjects are changing quickly. The LCD — which is now nicely touch-enabled — folds out either up or down. That’s a big benefit when trying to shoot over crowds or get a low-level perspective on a subject. Most of the other controls have been left alone, which is good news to those of us who are used to them. The touch screen also makes it easier to wade through the menu system.
Is the Nikon D850 Right for You?
The best thing about the modern crop of DSLRs is that there are excellent models at every size and price point. Even without switching brands to Canon or Sony — that both have excellent alternatives to Nikon’s models — you can pick your sweet spot. If you want or need the D850 and some pro lenses, it’ll set you back $ 5K or more total ($ 3,300 for the Nikon D850 itself). For a little over half that, you can get a pro-quality D500 and quite good all-around lens, or for one-third of that, you can get a D7500 and kit lens, like the one pictured here.
Owning both the D7500 and the D850, there are definitely days where I just feel like grabbing the little camera. The D7500 is just as much fun, and for many uses it is perfectly fine. It is also easier to stuff into my bag when I’m going out to do drone photography, but want to have a regular camera along. However, if I’m shooting with the idea of making prints, or need the best possible low-light performance — or the ease of shooting wide angle that comes with a full-frame camera — then reaching for my Nikon D850 is a no-brainer.