Nikon D850 Review
Nikon D850 is Nikon’s high resolution semi-pro body and is currently one of the most popular DSLR’s on the market. Available since 2017, the 45-Mega pixel D850 is the second highest resolution full frame DSLR you can buy today (the highest resolution DSLR is still the 50-mega pixel Canon EOS-5D S(R) series introduced back in 2015). Unlike the 5D S series which are essentially studio cameras, the Nikon D850 packs a ton of features and horsepower under the hood making it an action worthy camera as we will see later.
In this review I will discuss D850’s strengths, and weakness from a professional bird photographer’s point of view. This review is a result of more than a year of shooting with the D850 under different conditions and includes many sample images. I hope you enjoy it, please note the images are in High Definition format (1920 x 1080) and are best viewed on a high quality desktop screen with no scaling. Click on each image to expand. All images are processed with Capture One Pro 12.
Build quality and handling:
As expected, the D850 is a solidly built body carved mostly from magnesium alloy. It includes rubber seals at all joints to protect against moisture penetration (seen in the picture below, courtesy of Nikon USA) . In my hand, the D850 feels pretty solid. It doesn’t have quite the same “tank-like” feeling of my D5, and the rubber skin is also thinner than the D5 but that is not a very big deal. Unlike the D5, the D850 is assembled in Thailand (parts still made in Japan, of course). I have shot with my gripped D850 from a zodiac where it got almost soaked in salt water, I kept shooting with no issues. Compared to the Canon 5D series, the D850 has overall a higher build quality and feels more solid/substantial. It shares most of its dials and controls with the larger D5.
The D850’s default continuous shooting speed is 7 fps which isn’t quite adequate for wildlife action. Fortunately with the addition of the MB-D18 battery grip and the EN-EL18b high-capacity battery (same as the one used in the D5), the D850 can be boosted to 9 fps. However the battery grip, the high capacity battery and the required charger add both weight and cost to the package. D5 owners only need to purchase the MB-D18 grip since they already have a dual charger and probably a couple of spare EN-EL18b batteries. The grip can also be operated with eight standard AA batteries if needed (at 7 fps), a very neat feature if you are on location and have forgotten your charger or don’t have access to electricity! It can save a whole trip.
Below you can see the comparison between the D850, the D5 and the smaller D500. With the optional battery grip added, the D850 is the largest and the heaviest of the three. The D850 takes both XQD and SD type cards. The SD card is too slow and useless for users who like to shoot action, I wish the D850 had a dual XQD card interface just like the D5.
The D850 features a tilting LCD monitor that can tilt both upward and downward. This makes it easier for shooting off a tripod or from waist level. Many bird photographers hand hold their large super-telephoto lenses (I hand hold my AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL at all times) a tilting screen is not really useful for this group of photographers, nevertheless it is a nice feature to have. The tilting mechanism is smooth but the camera is more vulnerable in accidental drops or impact with the screen tilted. The D850 features 2 programmable buttons on the front of the camera.
While the camera features a soft shutter release mechanism, the vibrations from the mirror slap are not quite as well damped as the D5. At slow shutter speeds the mirror vibration can cause some softness when hand holding long lenses. I get a higher percentage of tack sharp files with my D5 or the D500, with either AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF or the AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL hand held at 1/200sec than I get with the D850. However such slow shutter speeds aren’t useful for shooting birds unless they are stuffed.
The D850’s rear LCD makes extensive use of touch controls which is great for reviewing images or grabbing focus when in live view mode (for those who use it). It is also worth mentioning that the D850 and other Nikon DSLR’s use the older and now obsolete contrast detect AF in live view mode. The LV focusing is hopelessly slow and constantly hunts when trying to focus on anything that moves-even slowly. It is much inferior to the modern hybrid on-sensor AF systems, such as Canon’s excellent dual pixel LV AF. This is unfortunate given the great video quality of both the D850 and D5 (4K 30p). Using fast lenses such as the excellent AF-S 105mm f/1.4E for shooting video, can give dramatic cinema-like effects, but the AF in live view just can’t keep up and spoils the whole thing. Nikon has some catching up to do with Canon’s excellent dual-pixel on-sensor AF in this area.
The viewfinder of the D850 is quite large and bright, the elevated eye piece makes is much easier to view the entire image for folks who wear glasses as I pointed out in my D5 review. Compared to the EOS-5D Mark IV the D850 finder looks significantly larger and brighter partly because of the elevated and rounded eye piece. Just like the D5 the large optical finder is a joy to use and puts any kind of EVF to shame. there is no lag, no noise in low light and no blown highlights or weird colors.
The D850 also features built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for wireless communication but these are only usable for connecting the camera to Nikon’s smartphone app (Snap Bridge) and cannot be used for example for transferring images to a wireless access point. Nikon’s smartphone app is just OK, like other camera manufactures’ apps, the app struggles to connect to the smart phone constantly switching between camera’s WiFi and Bluetooth. At the time of writing this review, Snap Bridge is not working with Apple’s iOS 13. I am not sure which company is to blame, I assume it is Apple since the app used to work before the OS13 update. If Nikon simply provided standard WiFi connectivity one could easily control the camera from a web based interface, a much more robust solution.
As always please note when I talk about image quality I expect tack sharp and crisp raw files when viewing at 100% on my 4K reference NEC screen. Other folks may have a different definition of “sharpness”.
The image quality of the D850 at ISO’s below 800 is nothing short of breath taking. It delivers raw files that are sharper and more detailed than any camera I have ever used. The D850’s sensor does not have an optical low-pass filter and the micro contrast/detail it delivers is remarkable. The only problem is that once you get used to this level of fine detail, images from other cameras, including the D5 suddenly appear a bit underwhelming. The ability to crop the 45-mega pixel files is extremely useful to wildlife and especially bird photographers. A 50% crop of a D850 image contains more pixels than a full frame D5 image, and that makes a difference.
Like the D5 the best results from the D850 raw files is obtained by using Capture One Pro. Below are 100% crops (1:1) from RAW of a decoy owl decorated with real feathers processed with C1P. The fine feather details are retained up to ISO-800. At ISO-1600 the details start to degrade a bit. As seen below at ISO-3200 the finer details are a bit softened by noise. For details of my raw processing workflow please see my Capture One Pro guide.
The 100% crop below shows the difference in rendered detailed between the D850 and the D5 under controlled conditions with uniform lightning . The D850 image clearly has more visible detail here even at ISO-1600. In actual low light conditions in the field however, the difference is smaller and sometimes the D5 output is even better.
Field image quality:
The field image quality of the D850 echos the findings above. When I first started shooting with the D850 I saw fine details in some species that I had never seen before. The high resolution sensor is also ideal for shooting small birds. Overall in good light, and when combined with the sharp optics such as either the AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL or the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF there is nothing better than a D850 raw, in my opinion. Shown below are 100% crops from a typical D850 raw taken in good light. The raw files are tack sharp and crisp.
The sample below demonstrates the actual cropping ability of the D850. The dowitcher was less than 10% of the frame.
What is not so great about D850 is its high ISO performance when shooting birds in low light or under cloudy skies. The fine feather details seem to quickly deteriorate at ISO’s 1600 and above. Overall I would be hesitant to use the D850 above ISO-1600.
Having said that, there are some special circumstances where the camera can produce great results at high ISO’s and under low light conditions. Two such examples are provided below. The red-tailed hawk and the norther harrier were both photographed as the sun was setting over the Pacific ocean (the low sun clearly visible in the pupils). In both cases, the 100% crops from raw, look a tad soft and show visible noise/grain that has impacted the finest details, however the final output doesn’t look bad at all.
In order to achieve acceptable high-ISO results with the D850, like the sample below the subject must be uniformly lit (no shadows) and large in the frame (D850 files should not be cropped more than 50% at very high ISO’s). Careful processing with Capture One Pro and calibrated noise reduction in Neat image are both needed to a) maximize the details and b) remove the grain from the feathers without softening it too much. The details of both processes are described in detail in my C1P guide for Nikon and the PP guide (co-authored with Artie Morris).
Here is another high-ISO example, a juvenile northern harrier.
100% crop from RAW shown below.
In conclusion , the image quality of the D850 is mind blowing in good light and with sharp lenses. However, the image quality can deteriorate quickly at higher ISO’s and in low light. The dense 45-mega pixel sensor has inevitably compromised the high ISO performance, but given its excellent performance otherwise this is an acceptable compromise IMO. If I know I am going to be shooting in low light, I would pick my D5 any day.
A high image quality without a top notch AF system is not useful for bird photographers who like to capture dynamic images of birds in flight or action wildlife shots such as a high speed prey chase. When I was shooting with Canon, I also preferred the 30-mega pixels files of the EOS-5D Mark IV to the 20-mega pixel files of the EOS-1D X Mark II . However, overall the AF performance of the 5D series always fell short compared to the 1D series. Despite having a similar AF system on paper, the 5D cameras were never able to acquire and track BIF as well as the 1D. As a result I was always hesitant to use the 5D cameras for flight and action photography despite its superior image quality to the 1D (under most circumstances). My 5D bodies always remained in my bag as backup bodies from the day I purchased to the day I sold hem. I am happy to report that with the Nikon D850, that is not the case. Nikon has really given the D850 everything they could. It essentially uses the same AF system as the flagship D5 and the same improvements that I saw when shooting with the D5 (see my review) were observed with the D850. The D850 AF system makes it possible to capture complex subjects and is up to the job for capturing world-class images as evident by the variety of the images below.
100% crop from the image above, processed with C1P.
The D850 is great for capturing small birds in flight
For making highly- detailed images of perched birds, the D850 is the no brainier choice.
The D850 is ideal for photographing skittish birds such as the CA white-tailed kite.
Continuous shooting Buffer:
The factor that can limit the D850’s ability to capture the peak of the action frame is not the AF but its buffer capacity. Because of the large 45 mega-pixel files, the buffer capacity of the D850 is limited. Even when using the fastest XQD card available (I use Sony’s 128GB XQD cards) the camera can only shoot at full 9fps for about 30 frames or a little over 3 seconds. This could be inadequate for situations with multiple birds and interactions. You need to hold off firing a deep burst and instead time the burst carefully. When the buffer fills up the camera slows down noticeably (even the AF response slows until the buffer is clear) and this can cause some missed frames. This is the price one has to pay for the high resolution 45-mega pixel files. For shooting intense action day in and day out, D5 has a clear advantage and would be my primary choice. Nikon has promised compatibility with the new CF-express cards via a new firmware, it remains to be seen if the faster memory card can reduce the buffer flush time and thus fit a few more files in the buffer before filling up.
Nevertheless, I have been able to get some descent action frames with the D850 by relying on my experience to anticipate action.
The D850 is also a great companion for the light Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF lens. (see my review of the PF here)
The D850 AF is almost as good as the D5-but not exactly the same- it has not been intentionally crippled to put some distance between the two bodies. The D850 has less processing power than the D5 and as a result the AF is not 100% as responsive as the D5 as I pointed out in my D5 review. With addition of the TC14-E III to any f/4 prime lens or in low light (overcast) conditions, an well-experienced BIF photographer will notice some differences between the D5 and the D850.
One scenario where the difference between the D5 and the D850 becomes very noticeable is when shooting with a maximum aperture of f/8. In this scenario he difference between the D5 and other Nikon bodies for BIF is day and night. However this is somewhat a moot point because the the higher pixel density of the D850 gives it the same reach (in terms of pixels) as the D5 with an additional 1.4X TC.
Given that the optical quality of the Nikon 2X TC does not meet my standards, the only combination that resulted in a max. aperture of f/8 in my testing was the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14-E III. I used this combo to shoot ducks and shore birds on a few occasions and got some keepers as well, but overall the keeper ratio was somewhat disappointing. I would stick with maximum aperture of f/5.6 or faster when shooting BIF with the D850 (or the D500).
more sample images….
If you are a bird photographer, these samples should have already convinced you of the capabilities of the D850 so enough said.
The Nikon D850 is a very unique camera and there is nothing like it on the market at the time of writing this review. The Canon EOS-5D S(R) cannot compete with the D850, it is way too slow and its sub-par AF isn’t really suitable for action, its files are much noisier than the D850 and lack dynamic range. The EOS-5D Mark IV is closer but it has a significantly lower resolution and even smaller buffer capacity, it shoots only at 7 fps and its AF is not able to keep up with the D850 either. So compared to both of these two competitors the D850 is a no brainier bargain. The D850 isn’t meant to be a primary action or low light camera but Nikon has given it so much that it doesn’t fall too short: with the right skills, patience and luck, it is ready and capable of producing stunning images. If there is one area to be improved is the buffer capacity. Therefore, highly recommended.
+class-leading resolution and image quality in good light (up to ISO 1600).
+Excellent AF system, close to the D5 (f/5.6 or faster lens) and capable of tracking complex subjects.
+Attractive price and excellent value for money.
+Excellent ergonomics, controls, build quality adequate for professional use.
+45 mega-pixels and 9 fps >300 Mega-pixel per second bandwidth.
+Excellent finder, fully programmable buttons, back-lit buttons.
+ tilting LCD with extensive touch functions.
+Built-in Bluetooth and WiFi hardware (for use with Nikon app only)
-Limited buffer, only about 3 seconds of burst at full speed.
-Not the best high ISO performance (compromise). Not suitable for low light bird photography.
-Contrast detect AF in LV useless and slow, not great for tracking during video capture.
-Optional grip, battery and charger are required to achieve 9 fps, this adds weight and cost.
-Wireless software only usable with Nikon SanpBridge app. currently not functional with iOS.