For an extended time, professional photographers have faced a blunt choice. You can get a camera with great resolution, like the Nikon D810, Canon EOS 5DS, or Sony A7R II, but no real speed or you can get a high-speed specialist just like the Nikon D5, EOS-1D X II or Sony A9, but you then need to compromise on resolution. Maybe you even end up having to buy one of each! We haven’t forgotten the Sony A99 II, but Sony’s Alpha SLT system has yet to establish itself as a viable, forward-looking proposition for pro photographers.
This is why the new Nikon D850 is such a big deal. It doesn’t just raise the bar for resolution, it delivers endless shooting speed to rival a fanatical sports camera. At last, this is often a knowledgeable DSLR that basically can do anything. What’s more, this blend of speed and resolution is just one facet of a camera that could be Nikon’s most important new model for years.
Nikon features a number of photography genres in mind with the D850, including nature and landscapes, weddings, fashion, and sport. In fact, this camera’s abilities are so wide-ranging that it could probably do anything, and it’s only the contrast-based autofocus in live view mode that stops it being one of the best 4K cameras for filmmaking too.
So let’s look at these specifications properly. First, there’s the new sensor, which has an effective resolution of 45.7MP – 25% more than the ground-breaking Nikon D810.
The D850’s sensor has been designed with no anti-aliasing filter so that it can capture the finest possible detail. This is getting to place heavy demands on both your lenses and your technique, as we’ll see later.
And then there’s the maximum continuous shooting speed of 9fps at full resolution, and with a buffer capacity of 51 uncompressed 14-bit Raw files. That is quite amazing, although here there are a couple of caveats.
The first is that you need the optional MB-D18 Multi-Power Battery Pack and EN-EL18B battery (as used in the Nikon D5) to achieve this speed. Without the grip, the camera can only shoot at 7fps – though that’s still impressive for a camera that has this level of resolution.
The second is that the quoted raw buffer capacity is also a ‘best-case’ figure at 7fps (not 9fps) and with the right memory cards.
The D850 comes with two in no time card slots – one for XQD cards, one for UHS-II SD cards – and you’ll need fast cards to travel with them if you want to urge anywhere near the quoted buffer capacity. And if you do get the MB-D18 grip and EN-EL18B battery for 9fps shooting, you won’t get the same Raw buffer capacity – see the Performance section for more on this.
And while the D850 does achieve an extraordinary blend of resolution and speed, it can’t quite carry this through into a high ISO range. The new sensor has a back-illuminated design and gapless on-chip microlenses, but inevitably the photosites are smaller than the Nikon D5’s, for example, and the ISO range is lower.
It’s still pretty good, going from ISO 64-25,600 is the standard mode, and offering ISO 32-102,400 in expanded mode – and Nikon has used its powerful EXPEED 5 processor to help with noise control – but you wouldn’t choose this over a camera just like the D5 for extreme low-light photography.
The Multi-CAM 20K AF sensor is powerful but its coverage does not extend to the edges of the frame – but you can always switch to Live View, and although this still uses relatively slow contrast autofocus, the new tilting touch-screen display is now much more useful. You can set it up for touch focus and even touch shutter operation, and a new Pinpoint AF mode helps you identify tiny targets, which is important given this camera’s level of resolution.
The Live View mode has another trick – a silent photography mode where the D850 switches to its electronic shutter and can shoot without making any noise at all. You can shoot at up to 6fps at full resolution in this mode – or at an amazing 30fps at a reduced resolution of 8 megapixels.
This is perfect for sports where cameras are usually banned at key moments, for theatrical performances and weddings, where a clattering shutter would just spoil the moment.
We also need to talk about video. The D850 shoots 4K UHD video, as we all expected it would, but it uses the full sensor width to do so. This means that your lens focal lengths stay the same and you no longer have to juggle with irritating crop factors.
As well as regular 4K video, the D850 can capture and process 4K time-lapse movies in-camera, or stunning 8K time-lapse movies with silent interval timer shooting, though you will have to use external software to combine 8K frames into a movie.
There’s more, including an in-camera multiple exposure overlay mode for creating multi-image composites of moving subjects, a new 1:1 image ratio for square shots, and in-camera raw batch processing, but we especially need to mention the battery life.
The D850 uses the same EN-EL15a battery found in other high-end Nikons, but where you’d expect the D850 to be a power-hungry ogre, it’s actually extremely frugal. According to Nikon, it will eke out 1,840 shots on a single charge, and that is truly impressive.
The D850 is not as big and heavy as a professional sports camera like the Nikon D5 or Canon EOS-1D X II, but it’s still a pretty hefty camera – especially when fitted with one of Nikon’s constant aperture professional zooms like the 24-70mm f/2.8.
But the controls are classic Nikon, so if you’ve already used one among Nikon’s pro DSLRs, you’ll pick this one up and begin shooting immediately. If you’re swapping from Canon or another brand it might take a little longer to get to grips with Nikon’s sometimes idiosyncratic control layout.
It’s not immediately obvious when looking through the viewfinder that this is Nikon’s largest viewfinder yet (it is), but it is big, bright and clear and a reminder that even in a market where mirrorless cameras are gaining ground, there’s still a lot to be said for a classic optical viewfinder.
There is obviously some blackout during high-speed continuous shooting, but it doesn’t stop you from keeping fast-moving subjects in the frame and it doesn’t have the stuttery lag of many electronic viewfinders at high frame rates.
Autofocus is fast and positive, though the speed of acquisition also will depend upon the lens you’re using and its autofocus actuators. The small thumbstick on the back of the camera is in the perfect position to find it by ‘feel’ so that you don’t have to take your eye from the viewfinder to change the focus point.
The Live View mode is activated by a button on the back, with a lever for switching between stills mode and video. Like other Nikon DSLRs, the D850 uses regular contrast autofocus, which is sluggish compared to Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF and Sony’s hybrid AF systems, though it does feel a little quicker in this camera than we’re used to with Nikon DSLRs. It’s possible the D850’s powerful EXPEED 5 processor has something to do with this.
The rear screen’s high resolution creates a super-sharp image for Live View photography and the touch-focus option is simple and intuitive to use. You can also set the camera to the touch-shutter mode in order that it takes an image as soon as focus is achieved, though most photographers would probably like better to separate the focus and shutter actions so that they have a moment to check the camera has acquired focus successfully.
The tilting display is another bonus, and while you wouldn’t use the D850’s Live View mode for fast-moving subjects, it’s a really pleasant tool for more considered and precise tripod-mounted photography.
If you’re planning on doing tons of action photography or extended portrait format sessions, the MB-D18 grip would be a really smart investment. It takes the D850 up to the size and bulk of a Nikon D5 or EOS-1D X II but does offer faster continuous shooting and greatly extended battery life (with Nikon’s EN-EL18b battery) as well as a handy set of duplicate controls for vertical shooting. It fits on very neatly but doesn’t quite offer the ‘seamless’ design of the D5.
The D850 has a number of headline features, but its resolution is almost certainly at the top of the list – and here there’s both good and bad news.
The bad news is that you’re going to have to work pretty hard to achieve it – and that’s because this camera’s resolving power is so high that any lens softness, focus error, or camera movement goes to be obvious. If you’re a pixel-peeper you’re in for a tough time because this camera will highlight the tiniest error in your technique – and this is a camera that’s going to attract pixel-peepers.
It also highlights the very fact that depth of field isn’t a hard and fast and definite thing. In reality, there is only ever one plane of sharp focus in a picture, regardless of the lens aperture, and ‘depth of field’ is simply an acceptable level of sharpness behind and in front of this plane which you can increase with smaller apertures. With the D850, perfectly focused detail is so sharp that any drop-off in sharpness becomes visible quite quickly.
If you want to exploit what this camera can achieve, you might need to stop thinking about the depth of field in the way you have done and start thinking about what key elements of the scene you need to be exactly in focus.
Achieving the 7/9fps frame rate is not the problem, it’s how long you can sustain it that’s the issue. We could not get the recommended 64GB Sony QXD card (maximum write speed 440MB/s) so we tried our fastest Sony UHS-II SD card, write speed of 299MB/s, and that started to hamper after 30 RAW shots at 7fps.
But we also tried a Lexar Professional 440MB/s XQD card and that made a big difference, coming within a whisker of Nikon’s own claims for raw buffer capacity – but this is at 7fps.
Shooting at 9fps changes things considerably. As you’d expect, the rate of data capture is much faster, and even the fastest memory cards can’t keep up. In our tests with the fast Lexar XQD card, we achieved around half the raw buffer capacity at 7fps – specifically, 23 14-bit uncompressed raw files, the same number of lossless compressed raws, and 30 14-bit compressed raw files.
It’s a reminder that you seldom get something for nothing, and that the D850’s spectacular combination of resolution and speed has only be achieved by driving image processing and memory card tech to its very limits.
To put this in perspective, though, it’s amazing that a 45.7MP camera can capture images at 9fps in the first place, without carping about how many 14-bit Raws it can capture before slowing down – and you can always drop back to 7fps or shoot JPEGs or 12-bit Raws instead.
The D850’s mechanical performance is terrific, right from its autofocus through to its continuous shooting speed and buffer capacity. Its image quality is even more impressive, building on the reputation of the D800 and D810 for amazing resolving power and overall image quality.
Nikon D850 verdict
Its ability to capture the finest detail is exceptional and its continuous shooting speed is remarkable for a camera with this resolution.
The D850 is aimed at an advanced amateur and professional readership which will undoubtedly look at other options too, of course. It’s the closest rival from the Canon stable is the EOS 5D Mark IV, but the D850 outclasses the Canon for resolution, continuous shooting speed, and – crucially – full-frame 4K video.
The EOS 5DS is in the running too, of course, but only for resolution. Sony’s A7 and A9 cameras are still split according to resolution (A7R II) or speed (A9), and although Sony’s A99 II SLT (Single Lens Translucent) model matches the D850’s combination of speed and resolution, it doesn’t have the system backup nor, perhaps, the Nikon system’s long term future.