Nikon D850 was a real game-changer when it was announced in July 2017. Whether you’re shooting weddings, landscapes, portraits, action or wildlife, the D850 will not leave you wanting. A much more multipurpose proposition than the Nikon D810 (and its closest rivals for that matter), the D850 is a brilliant DSLR, and perhaps the most well-rounded camera we’ve ever tested.
What is the Nikon D850?
The big surprise was not just the resolution, but the D850’s continuous shooting capabilities and increased ISO range. Before the D850, it was generally assumed that you had to choose either high resolution or high shooting speed in a professional camera since the huge amounts of data generated by high-resolution sensors took too much processing power for fast burst rates.
It’s offering an impressive 7fps continuous shooting speed as standard, boosted to a scarcely credible 9fps with Nikon’s optional MB-D18 battery grip. It offers a pretty good buffer capacity too, though for long-burst raw file capture you’re still better off with a high-speed specialist like the Nikon D5.
The D850’s specifications appear to suit practically any subject type or shooting situation, and while a couple of later mirrorless rivals now edge ahead slightly in speed, Nikon’s powerhouse of a DSLR is still in the top echelon of professional full-frame cameras.
Frankly, it doesn’t have a whole lot of competition in the DSLR market. Canon has not yet shown any sign of updating or replacing its 50-megapixel EOS 5DS and 5DS R, launched way back in 2015, and the only camera to beat the D850’s resolution, the Pentax K-1 Mark II, is a perfectly decent camera, but does not attempt to match either the D850’s speed or resolution.
Instead, the D850’s challengers have come from the mirrorless market, including the Sony A7R III, with almost the same resolution and faster shooting speeds, and Nikon’s own 45.7-megapixel mirrorless Nikon Z7.
- Review Price: $2399
- 45.7-megapixel full-frame backlit-CMOS sensor
- ISO 64-25,600 standard; ISO 32-102,400 extended
- 7fps shooting (9fps with MB-D18 grip)
- 153-point autofocus
- 4K 30p video recording
- XQD and SD (UHS-II compatible)
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- 3.2-inch, 2.36-mm dot tilting touchscreen
- The 45.7-megapixel sensor captures exceptionally fine detail
- Fast viewfinder autofocus with silent shooting choice in Live View
- Rear thumb-operated sub-selector for fast AF point positioning
- Extremely good 1840-shot battery life
- Potential for large and detailed images
- More expensive than D810
- No phase-detection AF in Live View
- Touchscreen operation doesn’t include key exposure settings
- Wireless SnapBridge connectivity needs improvement
Nikon D850 Review – Body and design
Nikon has once again produced an incredibly strong camera that feels superbly constructed, albeit with a few subtle body changes over the D810. Professional full-frame DSLRs have to be built like tanks if they’re to be robust enough to put up with the rigors of daily use, and the D850 is no exception.
The camera is built around a magnesium alloy chassis for strength and rigidity, and it’s fully sealed against moisture, dust, and dirt. There’s no pop-up flash, however. This was useful on the D810 for triggering other flashes remotely, but D850 users will have to rely on external Speedlights or remote flash trigger add-ons instead. That’s pretty standard for pro-level cameras these days.
From the front, the D850 doesn’t appear all that different from the D810. When you get it in your hands, though, you’ll notice that the grip has been reworked and made a fraction deeper. It’s fine for even the largest of hands and leaves your index finger resting comfortably on the shutter release. Comfort and a good feel are key factors for any serious photographer who will often spend hours at a time with a camera in hand. The control layout remains very ‘Nikon’. Unlike most DSLR and mirrorless models, the D850 dispenses with the regular mode dial. Instead, you change the exposure mode via a single button on the stacked control cluster on the left side of the top plate.
At the rear, you get the usual menu, lock, playback zoom and OK buttons parallel to the left of the screen, but there’s also a new customizable Fn2 button in the bottom corner that’s excellent for rating images in playback. It can also be set up to access My Menu and toggle between stills and movie shooting info in Live View. The integrated Live View button and stills/movie switch have shifted down and the info button is useful for viewing key exposure settings on-screen. In addition, there’s a clever folding port cover that allows you to keep the headphone socket fully protected from the elements when a microphone is plugged in.
Nikon D850 Review – Silent shooting
Nikon has added ‘Quiet’ modes within the past to suppress mirror slap and the noise of the focal plane shutter, and the D850 offers two Quiet modes, one for single-shot photography and one for shooting continuously at 3fps.
But these only suppress the sound of the shutter and can’t eliminate it completely. To get around this, Nikon has introduced a silent, zero-vibration electronic shutter that enables users to capture images in complete silence when using Live View. Mode 1 offers silent shooting at 6fps at full resolution including Raw, whereas Mode 2 rattles out 8-megapixel shots at 30fps in the JPEG format only.
This new way of shooting will be perfect for wedding and wildlife photographers who are often at risk of frightening or disturbing their subjects in quiet environments, but it’s easy to see the potential for theatre photography and many sports where key moments require absolute quiet – such as golf swings or tennis serves.
I tested both modes at a church wedding, and those around me were completely oblivious to the fact I was capturing images throughout the service. It’s a boon for those times when you want to be discreet and work under the radar.
Nikon D850 Review – Viewfinder and screen
One of the constraints of the Nikon D810 was that it had a fixed screen, so it’s good to finally see Nikon embracing a tilting touchscreen on one of its high-resolution pro-spec DSLRs.
It’s essentially the same 2.36m-dot LCD that you get on the Nikon D500. It tilts up and down for waist-level shooting, but isn’t as ingenious as the sideways-tilting screen you get on the Fujifilm X-T3, the scissor-action design of the Pentax K-1 II‘s screen, or the fully-articulating screen on the Canon EOS 6D Mark II. The D850’s screen and its single-axis tilt constrains you to shoot in landscape rather than portrait format too.
The angle of tilt is particularly good for low- and high-angle shooting. It goes one better than the D500’s screen, too, in the way the touchscreen can now be used to browse menus and change menu settings. You can’t change exposure variables from the info display or Live View screen, but it still offers a big step in the right direction. It’s also incredibly sensitive and precise to the touch, rivaling the response of Canon’s superb touchscreens.
The viewfinder is equally impressive. Obviously, being an optical viewfinder, it doesn’t offer a preview of white balance, exposure or depth of field in the way of an electronic viewfinder, but with its 0.75x magnification and 100% frame coverage it offers a very pleasing view when raised to the eye and an exact rendition of what you see with the naked eye. There is also an incredibly short blackout time, and there’s the option to block out the viewfinder to prevent any light leak problems during long exposures.
Nikon D850 Review – Autofocus
Nikon’s pro DSLRs have a reputation for fast and accurate focusing, and the D850 is no exception, using the same Multi-CAM 20K autofocus sensor module seen in Nikon’s flagship D5. It can be relied upon to acquire focus faster than you thought possible, though this will depend on the lens used and the speed of its internal AF motors.
The autofocus is most impressive in very poor lighting conditions. Dimly lit dance floors at wedding venues and low-light wildlife shots are just a couple of examples where I found the capabilities of the Nikon D850’s autofocus system excelled my expectations.
I experienced no difficulty at all tracking moving subjects traveling directly towards the camera, even in fading light. A quick-fire burst of 18 frames at 7fps set to continuous AF (AF-C) of a train traveling towards the camera in excess of 60mph resulted in only three frames not being perfectly pin-sharp
From the Autofocus custom setting menu, you can refine AF settings to suit your way of shooting. For example, you can speed up or slow down the blocked shot AF response, and tell the camera whether you’re shooting an erratic or steady-moving subject from the Focus tracking with lock-on settings. Users are given the option to reduce the number of selectable AF points from 55 to 15, and back button focusing is easy enough to setup from the AF activation sub-menu.
Nikon D850 – Performance
Being such a versatile camera, I found myself shooting a wide range of subjects in many different environments to find out how the D850 performs. First, I used the camera to shoot a series of landscapes and quickly found myself blown away by the astonishing detail the sensor resolves. The marriage of high resolution, fast focus speed, and tilt-angle screen allowed me to capture shots bursting with detail from low-angles, and far more easily than any previous high-resolution DSLR Nikon has produced.
The crystal-clear rear display, with its responsive touch control and accurate color rendition, is excellent for monitoring results. I regularly used the double-tap function combined with the rear dial to quickly zoom into 100% and check focus between shots. Even if you’re not overly keen on the idea of using a touchscreen on a DSLR, the D850’s are so good you’re likely to use it more than you think, especially to navigate the menu.
While it’s great that the D850 can capture shots without a trace of a sound, you’re still totally reliant on contrast-detection for autofocus in Live View, both when shooting stills and video. This is where the D850 does lose out to some of its more recent mirrorless rivals. I did find myself missing a few key shots where the D850 struggled to lock on fast enough, at which point I reverted to phase-detection focusing and composing via the viewfinder at the cost of louder operation.
The D850 can’t quite reach the heights of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV, which benefits from on-chip phase detection in Live View thanks to its Dual Pixel AF technology. However, the disadvantage of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is that it doesn’t offer a completely silent shooting mode in Live View like the D850. If you extend the list of possible rivals to mirrorless cameras, though, you have to include the excellent Sony A7R III and Nikon Z7. There are times when a mirrorless camera is better suited to the subject and the conditions than a DSLR.
To test the D850’s speed capabilities I used it on a car shoot – hanging out the back of a car to get a series of action shots. Without the MB-D18 grip and EN-EL18 high-power battery, I was limited to shooting at 7fps, but the AF system proved more than capable of tracking the car, delivering pin-sharp results frame after frame.
However, I did notice that shooting in Raw and Fine JPEG formats at a full resolution only gave me around 400 shots or so to play with using a SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB card. If you’re going to shoot at the highest quality at the highest speed on the D850 then you’ll not only need a few high-capacity cards, you’ll need carefully check card specifications and speed ratings before you buy – or bite the bullet and invest in the relatively new and untried XQD format.
I managed to shoot Twenty continuous frames (Raw and Fine JPEG) at full resolution at 7fps to my card before the buffer was reached. To get anywhere close to the promised 51-frame raw buffer – and reach the full potential of the D850’s speed capabilities – you will need to use the fastest UHS-II SD cards or XQD cards.
Just as my time with the camera came to an end, I managed to source a Sony 64GB XQD card. In real-world use, I found I was recording around 40 (14-bit lossless compressed) Raw files at 7fps before its buffer was reached. This is an impressive number considering the vast volume of data it was being asked to process and write. Formatting the card and switching to 12-bit lossless compressed Raw saw the number of continuously recorded frames increase to 107 at 7fps.
Nikon’s Snapseed system has developed a reputation for being troublesome. I found the camera would automatically pair and connect to my iPhone via Bluetooth without issue. However, it wouldn’t always send my latest shots to my mobile device straight away when the auto-link within the app was switched on. It seemed completely random as to when new photos would be transferred from the camera.
To overcome this I ended up using the Download Selected Pictures option, which initiates a Wi-Fi connection with the camera. Then, I manually selected the images I wanted to wirelessly transfer to my camera roll before sharing. Having the option to select the shots you’d like to import at 2MB or full resolution is great in this part of the app, but overall I was left with the impression that SnapBridge could be made more intuitive to use.
The fact it doesn’t offer the option to change exposure settings live in Remote Shooting mode also puts it way behind other apps from rival manufacturers.
Nikon D850 Review – Video
The D850 is capable of producing excellent movie footage in the hands of a pro videographer. It offers in-camera 4K UHD recording (3840 x 2160) at 30fps and Full HD (1920 x 1080) at up to 60fps for a maximum record time of 29mins 59secs. This is not exceptional by today’s standards, since the APS-C format Fujifilm X-T3, for example, can record 10-bit 4K video internally at 60fps, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and the D850’s video capabilities are still broadly on a par with its rivals.
For cinematographers, the feature that sets the D850 apart from others is its 4K and 8K time-lapse capabilities. The time-lapse movie and intervalometer settings are easy to understand, too, offering advanced options such as being able to turn on silent shooting and exposure smoothing.
Once you’ve set up the interval and shooting time, you get a visual of how much space the time-lapse is going to take up on your SD or XQD card, as well as the indicated length of the time-lapse once complete. It’s simply a matter of hitting start to commence a 4K time-lapse. However, it’s worth noting that those who’d like to generate an 8K time-lapse will need to shoot in Raw and run the files through a third-party program since this can’t be done in-camera.
Creating high-resolution time-lapse footage is rather draining on the battery, so the MB-D18 grip and EN-EL18 high-power battery are recommended if you’re going to use this functionality regularly.
Why you should buy the Nikon D850?
Nikon users had a long three-year wait for a replacement to the mighty D810. Even during this time, it was hard to see what Nikon could actually do to improve on a camera that had become something of a modern classic. The great news is that the D850 doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, delivering more than perhaps any of us could have expected.
Professionals, semi-professionals and serious enthusiasts will be thunderstruck by the performance of the new 45.7-million-pixel full-frame (FX-format) CMOS sensor, particularly its low-light capabilities at high ISO. More than that, by successfully marrying high resolution with high speed, Nikon made the D850 arguably the most versatile DSLR on the market.
It’s true that 2018 has seen some major innovations in the full-frame mirrorless market from Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic, and that the D850’s combination of speed and resolution is no longer unique, but by comparison the DSLR market has remained pretty static, and if you prefer DSLRs to mirrorless cameras – and many do – the D850’s landmark status is unchallenged, even now.
As far as Nikon users are concerned, the D850 changes one of the basic system setups. Until now, you’d need a D810, say, for high-resolution shooting, and a D500 (or a D5) for fast action work. The D850 offers both in a single body – though you will need the MB-D18 battery grip and an EN-EL18 battery to achieve that 9fps continuous shooting speed.
It’s not just the speed and the way the Nikon D850 is capable of processing such high volumes of data so quickly that impresses, either, as the AF response is as good as you get on the flagship Nikon D5. It’s insanely accurate and responsive, even when challenged with the fastest subjects and poorest of lighting conditions. In fairness, there are other arguments for carrying two bodies, such as being able to switch from one lens/setup to another in an instant. Real-life events tend to unfold at their own speed and won’t wait while you swap lenses.
The D850 is not perfect, of course. The tilting touchscreen is great, but is limited to a single axis of movement and does not offer touch control of key exposure settings. The contrast-based Live View AF is slower than the on-sensor phase-detection systems of rival cameras (and the newer Nikon Z 7) and the Snapbridge wireless connectivity proved somewhat unpredictable and unreliable.
one of these points makes any serious dent in the D850’s appeal, though. It’s an absolutely sensational camera that is as impressive now as when it was first launched. And if mirrorless cameras do indeed take over the world, the D850 will surely represent the high watermark of digital SLR design. After a few tough years Nikon appears to finally be back on track with one of the finest and most versatile DSLRs ever made.