What is the Nikon D850?
Nikon wetted the appetite of many photographers earlier this year with news that it was working on a follow-up to its high-resolution full-frame D810 in the form of the Nikon D850.
When the wraps finally came off the D850, it struck up a similar level of hype to the company’s announcements of its high resolution D800 and D800E twins back in 2012. It was expected that the resolution would exceed the 36 megapixels offered by the D800/D800E and D810 – but what wasn’t so clear were Nikon’s plans to radically increase shooting speed, boost the sensitivity range and add a whole host of other improvements.
In the past, high-speed shooting and an outstanding noise response have been compromises you’ve had to make for choosing a super-high-resolution DSLR. This is the reason that so many professionals carry around a model that’s good for shooting at high speed and another that excels at high resolution; there’s never been the perfect hybrid. Nikon’s answer is the D850, which set its sights on being the perfect all-rounder.
On paper, the Nikon D850 has a jaw-dropping spec that’s tailored for almost any subject or situation. While it isn’t exactly cheap (£3499 body-only), it hits the market at a price that’s lower than what many pros expected. The D850 looks incredibly promising and now the time has come to take a closer inspection.
Nikon D850 – Features
Inside the Nikon D850 is an all-new 45.7-megapixel full-frame (FX-format) CMOS sensor, which does away with an optical low-pass filter. It packs gapless on-chip micro-lenses, with a backside-illuminated architecture to maximise its light-gathering capabilities. Where the D810 could shoot natively between ISO 64-12,800 (expandable to ISO 32-51,200), the D850 now offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 64-25,600, expandable to ISO 32-102,400.
Nikon has paired this new sensor with the same Expeed 5 image processor seen in its flagship D5. This helps to bring continuous shooting speed up to a healthy 7fps, and there’s the option to boost this to 9fps with the MB-D18 grip (£369) and EN-EL18 high-power battery. At 7fps the D850 has a 51-frame raw buffer, and with an XQD card slot languishing next to an UHS-II compatible SD card slot, it offers good prospects for sports and action photographers who demand nothing but the fastest read/write speeds.
The D850 also inherits Nikon’s best autofocus system – again lifted directly from the D5. It sports 153 focus points (of which 55 are user-selectable), including 99 of the more accurate cross-type, and 15 that will work with lens and teleconverter combinations with an aperture of f/8. The centre point is sensitive to -4EV, and the rest to -3EV, allowing the camera to focus quickly in low light.
Autofocus modes include auto area, 3D colour tracking, single point AF and of the option to select the number of continuous (AF-C) focus points from a group of 9,25,72 or 153. In Live View, there’s a new pinpoint AF mode that’s designed to ease precise focusing on smaller subjects in the frame, but without on-chip phase detection, Nikon is still relying entirely on contrast detection for autofocus.
Metering is left in the capable hands of the manufacturers 180,00-pixel RGB sensor – yet another feature inherited from the D5. As we’ve seen before, it’s this metering sensor that’s used for subject-recognition purposes including face detection, which feeds information to the AF system for accurate and precise subject tracking.
If you’re worried about how quickly the D850 might clog up storage devices with its huge 8256 x 5504 pixel files, fear not. Nikon has added two reduced image size options when recording in Raw or JPEG. Change the image size from large to medium and the D850 will record 25.6-megapixel files (6192 x 4128 pixels), with the small setting reducing the resolution to 11.4-megapixel files (4128 x 2752 pixels).
In addition, the D850 has a DX Crop mode. This is automatically selected by the camera when a DX lens is attached, but can be used in combination with FX lenses for those who’d like to gain more reach at the telephoto end. It may use a small area of the D850’s sensor, but still produces adequate resolution (19.4 megapixels) with a 5408 x 3600 pixel count. To put this into perspective, the resolution produced in the D850’s DX Crop mode doesn’t fall far behind the 20.9-megapixel resolution produced by the D7500 and D500.
On the video side of things, the D850 is capable of in-camera 4K recording at 30fps using the full width of the sensor. 4K time-lapse movies can also be generated in-camera, but strangely, the only feature Nikon chose to reveal early – 8K time-lapse – can’t. This requires the use of third-party software. A more accurate description would have been to say the camera has a built-in intervalometer.
Videographers will also be pleased to receive aids such as a peaking display for accurate manual focus, and zebra patterns to help avoid overexposure. Both microphone and headphone sockets are built in and are located above the USB and Type-C HDMI interfaces.
Elsewhere, there’s new in-camera focus bracketing to create extended depth-of-field composites, as well as a new Natural Light Auto White Balance option, which promises optimal results in outdoor lighting. Hopefully, this should tackle Nikon’s favouritism to over-neutralise outdoor shots to give them more warmth.
Other impressive features are found on the rear of the camera. The optical viewfinder is the largest yet on a Nikon DSLR, with a 0.75x magnification; below it sits a 2.36-mdot LCD that tilts up and down. It’s similar to the D500’s screen and fully supports touch functionality, allowing you to navigate menus, browse images in playback or set the AF point in Live View.
The camera is powered by Nikon’s familiar EN-EL15 battery, but what’s particularly impressive here is that it can be used to shoot 1840 shots on a single charge – a big jump from the 1200-shot stamina of the Nikon D810.
As we’ve seen before, the D850 gets Nikon’s SnapBridge connectivity as a means of wirelessly moving images to mobile devices. Images can be transferred as you shoot, and selecting the all-important down-sampling 2-megapixel mode rapidly speeds up transfer times and saves on valuable storage space.
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Nikon D850 – Body and design
Professional full-frame DSLRs have to be built like tanks if they’re to be robust enough to put up with the rigours of daily use. The D850 is no exception and Nikon has once again produced an incredibly strong camera that feels superbly constructed, albeit with a few subtle body changes over the D810.
To give it its strength and rigidity, the camera is built around a magnesium alloy chassis. It’s fully weather-sealed to prevent moisture, dust and dirt penetrating through the body seams and damaging the internals. Nikon has also taken the decision to remove the pop-up flash – something that was useful on the D810 to trigger off-camera flash, but isn’t found on many of today’s most resilient, professional DSLRs.
From the front, the D850 doesn’t appear all that different from the D810. However, when you get it in your hands you’ll notice that the grip has been reworked and made a fraction deeper. It will accommodates the largest of hands extremely well and your index finger is left to rest comfortably on the shutter button.
Comfort and a good feel are key factors for any serious photographer who will often spend hours at a time with camera in hand. It’s here that the D850 really excels, to the point I’d say it’s one of the most comfortable pro DSLRs I’ve used over prolonged spells of shooting.
Spin the camera round in your hands and you’ll find every inch of the body is covered in buttons, dials or connector ports, with sufficient dedicated controls to change every key shooting setting without needing to access the menus. In terms of button layout, there are a few nice touches. For example, there’s a new joystick that falls naturally under your thumb for shifting the focus point around the frame on the fly. It’s faster than using the four-way controller and its knurled texture helps you identify it from the AF-ON button.
Nikon’s decision to put the ISO button above the drive mode dial on the D810 was always a curious one, so it’s good to see this being exchanged with the mode button. In use it means sensitivity can now be changed without having to pull your eye away from the viewfinder.
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 customisable Fn2 button in the bottom corner that’s brilliant for rating images in playback. It can also be setup to access My Menu and toggle between stills and movie shooting info in Live View. The integrated Live View button and stills/movie switch has shifted down and the info button is useful for viewing key exposure settings on-screen.
Nikon users coming from the D800, D800E or D810 will quickly become familiar with the changes to the body. It should also be said that other Nikon users coming from less advanced APS-C models shouldn’t find the D850 bewildering, and can use their good knowledge of Nikon’s menu system to setup and navigate the camera easily.
If all the above wasn’t enough, the D850 has a few other nice touches. Flicking the on/off switch to its bulb position illuminates the top-plate LCD as well as many of the buttons across the body, which can make all the difference when shooting in the dark. 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.