Nikon D850 hands on review

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The Nikon D850 is finally here! After months of speculation, and Nikon itself teasing us last month that the camera actually existed and was in development, the D850 has been officially announced – and boy, has it been worth the wait.

Replacing the brilliant 36.3MP D810, the D850 certainly has big shoes to fill, but with a specification as impressive as this we’re sure there’s plenty here to get photographers excited. We were lucky enough to get some hands-on time with the camera, which included shooting with it, so here’s what you need to know.

Features

  • Full-frame CMOS sensor, 45.4MP
  • 3.2-inch tilt-angle touchscreen, 2,359,000 dots
  • 4K video capture

While the updated D810 retained the same 36.3MP resolution as the ground-breaking D800/D800e, that camera has been eclipsed by both the 50.6MP Canon EOS 5DS and 42.2MP Sony Alpha A7R II. The D850, though, gets an all-new 45.7MP full-frame back-illuminated sensor, which is a hefty increase in pixels over the D810, and only marginally behind the 5DS. 

What the 5DS can’t do, though, is offer a 1.5x crop mode, which the D850 can. In the camera’s DX Crop mode, the perimeter of the frame can be masked to provide a view equivalent to that of an APS-C-format DSLR. The resolution drops because you’re only using a portion of the sensor, but thanks to the D850’s huge resolution you’ll still be able to shoot 19.4MP files. That’s not far off the 20.9MP resolution on both the D500 or D7500. Impressive stuff. There’s also a new 1:1 aspect ratio as well at 30.2MP.

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Compared to the D500 (and, for that matter, the D5), the D850 has quite a modest ISO ceiling of 25,600, with a native base sensitivity of ISO64. This is no surprise really when you consider how densely populated the sensor is, but there is an extended sensitivity range up to an ISO equivalent of 108,400 (Hi2). And something that should keep landscape photographers happy is the fact that the D850 also has a Lo1 setting equivalent to ISO32.

The D850 sports a new 0.75x optical viewfinder – that’s the largest magnification factor ever on an FX Nikon DSLR, and also a touch bigger than the 0.71x viewfinder on the 5DS. Unlike the D810, the D850 also features a tilt-angle, 3.2-inch 2,359,000-dot touchscreen. It’s similar in spec to the one on the D500, but offers greater touch control, enabling you to navigate the menus as well as touch to focus, trigger the shutter and review images. 

The D850 can shoot 4K UHD in FX format with no sensor cropping at up to 30p, allowing you to take full advantage of the field of view of your lenses. Lower-resolution video modes are also available, including Full HD footage in 60p, while 8K UHD timelapse movies can be created in-camera. There’s also an electronic Vibration Reduction system to reduce the impact of camera shake when shooting movies handheld, and there are ports for external microphones and audio monitoring.

The D850 drops the CompactFlash card slot that was on the D810 in favor of an XQD slot, and the performance advantages that brings (although at the moment Nikon is the only manufacturer to take up this storage format on its cameras), while the SD card slot supports cards up to UHS-II. 

In terms of connectivity, the D850 gets SnapBridge for wireless transfer of images and remote camera control.

Build and handling

  • Magnesium alloy body
  • Comprehensive weather-sealing
  • Weighs 1005g

As on the D500, Nikon has omitted the pop-up flash from D850 in an effort to make the camera even sturdier. Some may be sorry to see this feature disappear – we’ve found it useful in the past for triggering remote Speedlights – but it’s always felt like a bit of a weak link on a pro-spec DSLR.

The D850 sports a magnesium alloy body, and as you’d expect for a camera designed for professional use is protected from the elements by a host of weather seals. The grip is incredibly comfy, and the overall feel is excellent. 

As we’ve seen with the D500, you can set the majority of the controls on the D850 to light up (along with the top-plate LCD) by rotating the on/off switch beyond the ‘on’ position, making it much easier to quickly change settings in poor light.

Nikon has also altered the D850’s control layout from the D810, with the top-plate arrangement now matching that of the D500, which for those intending to use the two cameras side-by-side should make the transition between bodies pretty seamless.

This means the ISO button now sits just behind the shutter button, which makes it easier to adjust single-handed, an improvement on the slightly awkward positioning on the D810, where it sat in the cluster of four buttons above the drive mode selector.

The other notable addition is a small AF joystick that enables you to quickly toggle through the D850’s array of AF points (more on the AF in a moment), although you can still use the eight-way controller on the back of the camera if you prefer.

Autofocus

  • 153-point AF, 99 cross-type AF points
  • User-selected array limited to 55 points
  • Impressive coverage across the frame

The 51-point autofocus system in the D810 is still one of the best performers out there, but Nikon has equipped the D850 with the same Multi-CAM 20K AF module as its flagship D5. 

In our book this is one of the best, if not the best, autofocus systems we’ve seen on any camera to date. It features an impressive 153 AF points, of which 55 are user-selectable and 99 are the more sensitive cross-type points for even greater precision. That’s not all – AF sensitivity goes all the way down to -4 EV, which should enable the D850 to focus pretty much in almost complete darkness.

Shot using the D850’s Group Dynamic AF system

As we’ve experienced with the D5, the system is excellent, with sports and action photographers unlikely to be disappointed by the D850’s autofocus performance. From the time we had with the D850 there’s no question its AF performance is very fast, and very accurate, and we’re looking forward to exploring its comprehensive tracking capabilities further in our full review.

As in the D5 (and the D500), Nikon has included its clever automated procedure for fine-tuning lenses on the D850, but it’s been tweaked for improved set-up. 

Performance

  • 7fps burst shooting (9fps with battery grip)
  • 51 shot raw file buffer
  • 1,840-shot battery life

Despite the decent increase in pixels compared to the D810, the D850 features an increased burst shooting speed, up from 5fps to 7fps, making it an even more versatile piece of kit. Furthermore, put the MB-D18 battery grip on the bottom of the D850 with a large EN-EL18B battery fitted, and that rate will increase to 9fps. This certainly compares favorably with the 5fps shooting speed of both the EOS 5DS and Alpha A7R II, and considering the size of files the D850 has to process, the 51 shot buffer (at 14-Bit raws) is also very impressive.

Something that is bound to appeal to wedding and social photographers is the D850’s ability to utilize an electronic shutter to shoot silently at 6fps in Live View mode. Need more speed? Select the DX crop mode and shoot 8.6MP pictures at a speedy 30fps.

The D850 employs a 180K-pixel RGB sensor (the same as the D5), offering metering down to -3 EV. This might not sound like a big deal, but those shooting long exposures with ND filters can now rely fully on the D850’s AE and AF without needing to detach the filter. 

The D850 features three types of auto white balance to deliver more options: Auto 0 should faithfully render whites under any light sources, Auto 1 maintains a balance of the original subject color and ambient lighting, while Auto 2 renders color with a natural sense of warmth, retaining the color of incandescent lighting.

Image quality

  • ISO64-25,600 (expandable to ISO32-108,400)
  • Additional 25.6MP Medium and 11.4MP Small raw file sizes
  • Built-in focus stacking

We could only shoot JPEG files with the cameras at the launch, so we’ll reserve judgement on the D850’s image quality until we’ve shot more with the camera and looked at the raw files. From what we’ve seen though, the 45.7MP sensor doesn’t disappoint – even high-ISO shots appear to handle noise well and deliver a good amount of detail.

This is straight out of the camera at ISO11,400

Early verdict

It’s felt like a long time coming, but the Nikon D850 has definitely been worth the wait. To say the specification is comprehensive is an understatement – the D850 is packed with features, while it’s not handicapped when it comes to performance either. The 153-point AF system is one of the best around, and the 7fps burst shooting makes it a much more versatile proposition than the D810 (and its closest rivals). 

The D850 is bound to appeal to a wide range of photographers, from wedding and landscape shooters to those capturing action and wildlife. We’ll be bringing you our full review soon, but for now the D850 looks like it could be the most complete DSLR we’ve ever seen.



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