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Anniversary Present: Nikon D850 Review

Arriving to celebrate Nikon’s centennial anniversary, the Nikon D850 is one of the company’s best cameras, ever. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Night Sky Over Bend, Oregon. The Nikon D850 is likely to be the darling of astrophotography shooters, though probably still surpassed by the D810A, which has a modified IR filter that’s particularly suited to celestial photography.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nikon—a century of innovation and advances that spans the vast majority of the history of photography. But if the camera industry were a superhero movie we would find Nikon a number of movies into their franchise deal, facing a growing roster of foes.

In the scene unfolding in our movie, our hero—let’s call him NikonShooter—has been brought down by the combined forces of a trio of young super-villains called Market Share, Mirrorless Woman and Economic Tides, who together have just buried NikonShooter under the brick-and-mortar facade of a camera store they toppled onto him.

Predictably, the over-confident villains turn their back on their foe, and the score would swing to the melancholy as they suspected their last blow to be a lethal one. Suddenly, a rumble and a crash would make the villains turn, and as the music builds to a crescendo, the hero emerges from the rubble, throws a girder at the upstart new villains and launches triumphantly into an epic battle with renewed vigor.

Our Hero Returns

In this metaphor, the launch of the Nikon D850 is the girder-throwing moment that our audience cheers for. The D850’s combination of a high-resolution sensor and fast capture rate, plus Nikon’s legendary AF and exposure tools and a host of clever features, make the camera greater than the sum of its parts. Nikon shooters everywhere—and even the Nikon employees I’ve talked to—should be overjoyed at the arrival of this camera.

That’s because in an industry where companies turn out minor revisions to keep a product cycle alive, the Nikon D850 is a major update, combining the power of the Nikon D5, the form factor of the Nikon D750 and the resolution of the Nikon D810 into a single product.

I’ve spent several intensive weeks with the Nikon D850, including a multi-day press event in Oregon where we put the camera through its paces with multiple subject styles and multiple shoots. We used the Nikon D850 to tackle fashion and portrait work, capture multiple fast-moving sports shoots, tackled landscapes and even stood in the cold night air for some astrophotography. There simply wasn’t a thing the D850 didn’t do well.

Weather-resistant seals allowed shooting even though this Class 4 rapid kept dousing the Nikon D850 with spray.

The D850 is a more enjoyable camera to use in daily operation than the Nikon D5, owning mostly to the smaller form factor and reduced weight. While I love the solidity of the top-end Nikon bodies, they’re simply larger than they need to be for the majority of shooters. Nikon has always addressed this by creating a standard-sized body that has the sensor, AF and AE system of the pro-sized body, though with reduced frame rate and some compromises in other areas of operation. The Nikon D750 is a pint-sized version of the D4, for example, and that camera (which is still in the lineup) features the best of the D4’s technology, but no camera arrived to replace it with the D5’s features.

Meanwhile, photographers wanting a higher-resolution sensor than that in the top-end model would need to purchase another of the company’s cameras, the D8XX models, which have bigger sensors but slower performance.

In this case, Nikon zigged where they usually zag and combined the best of the Nikon D5 and also the best of the high-res Nikon D810 into the Nikon D850, with an impressive list of features and specs. The Nikon D850 has a 45.7-megapixel backside illuminated sensor—the highest resolution in not only the Nikon lineup, but the highest (as of press time) in the full-frame market. Even the Sony a7R II (which we anticipate will be replaced shortly) has a lower-resolution 42-megapixel sensor. The spec sheet for the Nikon D850 looks particularly like it was designed to compete with the Sony a7R II, a camera that moved many people from both Nikon and Canon systems to a new platform.

The base ISO on the Nikon D850 is 64, with a top of 25,600, expandable to 102,400. For most photographers, this is better than the Nikon D5, which is geared specifically to lower light situations, and performs a bit better at higher ISO than it does at lower ISO settings. For a camera that’s going to be an all-around portrait and sports shooter like the D850, having better performance at the low end of the ISO range will provide a better result than they’d get with a Nikon D5 in studio or flash lighting and in bright daylight.

The Nikon D850 captures images at 7 fps, which can be boosted to 9 fps when using the accessory Nikon grip and Nikon D5 batteries. (This grip wasn’t available at press time, so we were unable to evaluate this claim.) It’s a smart idea to enable faster shooting with the use of a battery grip because the sports and wildlife shooters likely to need that speed can add the functionality, while the portrait shooter can stick with the body as-is.

The massive buffer on the D850 gives it the ability to buffer around 51 frames of 14-bit lossless RAW images and around 170 frames of 12-bit. That allows the camera to keep shooting RAW images for about 24 seconds at 7 fps before the buffer fills. This is what sets the D850 apart from cameras like the D810 and the Sony a7R II. The ability to keep shooting 45-megapixel RAW files, even up to 9 fps, without immediately having the buffer fill is impressive.

The camera even boasts full-frame 4K UHD recording capabilities and capture speeds up to 120 fps (in HD), although there are a few caveats. The Nikon D850 can do focus-peaking—critical for shooting video in manual focus—but can’t do it with 4K video. That, plus the lack of a color-gradable Log format, will make this camera a nonstarter for most 4K shooters. A landscape photographer would be able to shoot 4K video without focus peaking, but a sports shooter could not.

The D850 does offer a handful of fantastic features for niche photographic areas, something I think sets it apart in the same way that Pentax used a host of nontraditional tools to make the camera more appealing to photographers than the specs alone made it.

With its high-resolution sensor and accurate color, the Nikon D850 is bound to be a hit with landscape photographers.

The Nikon D850 allows for creation of 4K and 8K time-lapse in-camera, resulting in a ready-to-go 4K UHD movie. Since the time-lapse mode can capture up to 9,999 images, which would count toward the life cycle of the shutter, this mode uses an electronic shutter to capture the time-lapse, saving wear and tear. This electronic shutter is also available for regular shooting, making the D850 operate in a quiet mode.

The Nikon D850 can also do in-camera focus-stacking, a technique for increasing the depth of field in an image by capturing multiple images at different focal points and combining them in software. The D850 can control the stepping of the focus points and other settings for hands-free operation.

Like previous Nikon cameras, the D850 can quickly perform lens focus calibration without the need for test charts. This is a tremendous tool, and not enough photographers take advantage of it. In an era of great super-wide-aperture lenses, where focus might be measured in millimeters, having a lens dialed in to the exact focus point is crucial.

The D850 can also work in conjunction with a new film digitizer, an adapter that fits on the 60mm NIKKOR and holds film and slides at the right distance for capture. For a studio with a ton of film left to monetize, this is a great idea.

There are also some features that I scratch my head at. The Nikon D850, for example, will shoot at a square 1:1 crop. The advantage here is that the file doesn’t save the data for the non-captured area, making files smaller, but personally I’d rather shoot a full file and crop out the key parts of the image, just as I’d rather shoot a file in color and then convert to monochrome in software.

Other nice features are the dual SD/XQD slots, giving photographers and videographers a choice of media types (and future-proofing the camera, to some degree), built-in WiFi and the ability to work with the higher-power WT7 transmitter.

Putting On The Cape

Much like a true superhero, the Nikon D850 is mild-mannered in its daily use, but reveals incredible powers when the situation arises. The durable magnesium skeleton and weather sealing keep the camera going in rough weather and protect against drops and bumps. During shoots of whitewater kayakers in Oregon, I clambered on the rocks down to the edge of the spray, knocking the body against a few boulders on my way. I had no concerns or problems with the body, despite the constant stream of moisture.

Lightning-fast focus and a high frame rate allow the high-resolution Nikon D850 to tackle anything you can throw at it, including fast sports like motocross.

Similarly, I used a brace of cameras to shoot motocross, one with an ultra-wide-angle lens and one with a telephoto lens, and would just set the camera down on the loosely packed dusty terrain between shots. I’d simply pick up the body and brush off some of the dust, without fear that the grains would infiltrate the shell.

The focusing kept up with anything I could throw at it. In one test, I stood directly underneath a ramp as a motorcycle rode up it to jump through the air Evil Knievel-style. This gave me only a split second of time to focus on the front edge of the wheel coming off the ramp before the whole bike was flying through the air above me. From that first shot I’d then pivot around, pointing the lens at the motorcycle and track it through the air, and the camera nailed shot after shot. The same focus accuracy was seen on every test, from wide lenses to ultra-long glass. As the same motorcycle riders popped over the crest of a berm, I could lock on the rider and follow them through the air, capturing 7 fps the whole way through their arc.

Having easily nailed sports shots, the Nikon D850 sailed through tests of landscapes, a few fashion and engagement-style shoots, some lifestyle work and some particularly fun astrophotography shots. This camera is likely to be the darling of astrophotography shooters, though probably still surpassed by the Nikon D810A, which has a modified IR filter that’s particularly suited to celestial photography.

Since the camera could lock and hold focus on moving kayakers and mountain bikers, it should come as no surprise that it was able to capture models and brides-to-be, as well. Colors are as rich and vivid, as Nikon shooters have come to expect, and the resolution is stunning.

Coupled with Nikon’s legendary glass, the D850 produces some of the best-looking images we’ve ever seen in a full-frame camera. 

Up, Up And Away

The Nikon D850 is a particularly important camera for Nikon, for a number of reasons. The first is that they have upstaged Sony in terms of full-frame-sensor resolution, with a higher-resolution camera than Sony’s 42-megapixel a7R II and a faster capture rate. That’s important because Sony has been working at taking DSLR market share through a concerted effort to release cameras with better specifications than particular camera models from their competitors, and now Nikon gets to return the favor.

It’s also important because it signifies that Nikon is listening to customer requests, and doing some real innovations based around those requests. With a market grown bored of revamps centered around incremental upgrades, this new camera is refreshing.

The Nikon D850 is likely to be the must-have camera for professional Nikon shooters, no matter what camera gear they already own. It’s fast, it’s powerful, and exactly what Nikon—and its fans—needed right now.

“Anniversary Present: Nikon D850 Review” Comments

  1. Well done. I’m one of those that jumped ship from Nikon a year and a half ago (after 10 years Nikon Pro) and use the A7Rii. I was getting tired of the fabric coming off the body (D300/D700/D4/Df), rubber rings needing replacement on the Nikkor lenses, and was looking for more than 16 Megapixels. Once I used the A7Rii I couldn’t look back. The EVF is amazing. Seeing the shots in the viewfinder was faster. Seeing live view exposure changes as you move the settings, amazing! Smaller, lighter body! Great focus features! Sure there are times I’d like a larger buffer for fast continuous shooting, but since I don’t use burst mode that often it will be a few years before I’m looking to upgrade. Nikon is closer but still not there as to the EVF and 5 axis stabilization in body, etc. Plus now that Sony has all the FE lenses I’ll ever need, I’m happy.

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