30 October 2017
Until recently Nikon photographers looking for a high-end full-frame DSLR had to choose between the speed and autofocus prowess of the D5 or the high resolution detail-capture of the D810. Now there’s a new option that combines these elements, the Nikon D850 which has a 45.7million-pixel full-frame sensor, 7ps shooting (9fps with the battery pack) and the same 153-point AF system as the D5. That makes it a pretty enticing proposition, so let’s take a look in more detail.
The 35.9x23.9mm sensor inside the D850 is backlit and the micro lenses are gapless which means that the 45.7 million effective pixels can gather more light than those on a standard sensor, which is good news for image quality - especially in low light.
The image signal from the sensor is processed by Nikon’s latest engine, Expeed 5, and this enables a sensitivity range of ISO 64-25,600 with expansion settings taking it to the equivalent of ISO 32-102,400. Further good news is that 99 of the D850’s 153 autofocus (AF) points are cross-type and the centre point is sensitive down to -4EV while the rest operate down to -3EV - so it’s a good choice for low-light shooting. However, only 55 of the points are actually available for selection, with the remainder being support points. In continuous AF mode you can select to use the points individually or in groups of 9, 25, 72. Alternatively, you can let the camera select from the 153 points. Nikon’s Group-area AF and 3D-tracking modes are also available.
By itself the D850 can shoot at up to 7fps but this can be boosted to 9fps with the addition of the optional MB-D18 Multi-Power Battery Pack. Those frame rates can be sustained for up to 51 14-bit lossless compressed raw files or 170 12-bit lossless compressed raw files.
When silent Live View mode is enabled it’s possible to shoot completely silently with full-frame images being captured at 6fps or APS-C (DX) format images at 30fps. That could be useful for sports and wedding photographers but it’s important to remember that the camera relies on contrast detection focusing in Live View mode and it’s not the fastest system out there.
In another neat trick the D850 has a Focus Shift Shooting mode in which it can shoot up to 300 images in a sequence, shifting the focus between each frame. These shots can then be stacked post-capture for images with front-to-back sharpness.
On the video front there’s 4K/UHD (3,840 x 2160) capability at 30, 25 or 24p with no cropping, so you get the full width of your Nikon lenses. In addition, it’s possible to shoot Full HD (1920 x 1080) video at 60, 50, 30, 25 or 24p and there’s a 4x / 5x slow-motion Full HD mode. Although video can be recorded to a card in the camera, uncompressed 4:2:2 8-bit 4K files can also be saved onto an external drive via an HDMI connection.
One final feature highlight, the D850 uses the Nikon EN-EL15a battery and it has an impressive 1840-shot life.
Build and Handling
As soon as you pick-up the Nikon D850 it’s clear that it’s built to a high standard. It feels nice and solid and there’s a good-deep grip. It’s made from magnesium alloy and there are weather and dust seals around all the joints. As it’s a single-grip camera the D850 is considerably smaller and lighter than the Nikon D5. It’s also slightly smaller than the D810 and only a little bigger than the APS-C format Nikon D500.
Underlining the high-end credentials of the D850, it has a very similar control layout to the D500, with plenty in common with the D5. One of the most significant inclusions is the mini-joystick controller on the back of the D850 that falls conveniently within reach of your thumb - it’s not present on the D810 and it really speeds AF point selection.
Nikon users will recognise the familiar ‘I’ and ‘Info’ buttons on the back of the D850. The Info button activates a key settings display and the I button provides a route to a collection of features available for adjustment. One of the most exciting aspects of the D850’s handling is that the 3.2-inch 2,359,000-dot rear screen is mounted on a tilting bracket and its touch-sensitive. The tilting aspect makes it useful for videographers and photographers shooting low or high-level landscape format stills while the touch-control makes navigating the menu and making menu selections easy.
More good news is that the screen is nice and crisp, with plenty of detail and it responds promptly to a tap.
As it’s an SLR the D850 has an optical viewfinder and it’s a large, bright unit that’s a delight to use although naturally it can’t show the image as it will be captured with the camera settings taken into account.
The D850 uses a 180,000-pixel RGB sensor to gather information for the exposure metering system and it enables the camera to deliver good exposures in a range of situations. It’s not telepathic though, so you need to keep an eye out for the usual tricky scenarios in its matrix metering setting. It’s nothing that will surprise an experienced photographer and although it sometimes gets it right by itself, you need to be alert to the potential for underexposure with bright scenes and overexposure with dark scenes and apply exposure compensation as appropriate. If you do accidentally underexpose a scene, or you do so to preserve the last scrap of highlight detail, you’ll find that the D850’s raw files can bear significant brightening. We brightened some raw images by over 3EV and still got good results with pleasant colours, nice tonal gradation and noise that was kept in-check.
On the subject of colour, the D850 generally delivers nice looking images and the Standard Picture Control proves a reliable setting for jpegs. The white balance system also does a good job but with four Auto White Balance settings (Keep White, Normal, Keep Warm lighting color and Natural Light auto) it’s worth experimenting to find the one(s) that work(s) best for you. We had success with Natural Light auto, Normal and Keep Warm for many of the images we shot.
As you’d hope with a full-frame 45.7Mp sensor the D850 is capable of capturing a lot of detail. Images are completely clean of noise at up to around ISO 800 and even at this value you’ll only spot it if you go hunting in even-toned areas of images at 100% on-screen. As you’d expect, detail levels drop-off a bit towards the upper end of the sensitivity range, but ISO 25,600 shots look decent for that value - especially bearing in mind the camera’s resolution. It depends upon the subject and shooting situation, but A3 prints are a realistic proposition. The results from the expansion settings are okay, and they’d get you out of a hole if you were reporting news breaking in low-light, but you wouldn’t want to use them routinely.
The Nikon D5’s AF system is widely respected and it doesn’t disappoint in the D850, you can get moving subjects sharp quickly even in low light.
As with Nikon’s other DSLRs, it’s worth experimenting with the D850’s autofocus point selection configuration. When it’s set to use all 153 AF points, it does a good job of tracking large objects around the frame, but it’s a good idea to limit the group to 25 or 9 if you can keep the active are over the subject as this delivers more consistent results. If you need to target a very specific area, single-point AF is the best option, but naturally this makes it much harder to ensure the active point is over the target. If your subject has a good colour contrast from the background, 3D Tracking mode can be very effective. It allows you to specify the starting point and then the camera tracks the subject around the frame using colour information.
The Nikon D850 is one of the most exciting DSLRs of recent times and it’s sparked a lot of interest. It’s high resolution full-frame sensor enables it to capture a lot of detail, noise is kept within acceptable limits and there’s lots of control over depth of field. Meanwhile its superb autofocus system and standard 7fps shooting rate, which can be boosted to 9fps, makes it a great choice for sport and action photography.
Add in the fact that the D850 is significantly smaller than the D5, and not much bigger than the APS-C format D500, and it’s easy to see why professional and experienced enthusiasts are keen to get hold of it.
You can see Nikon's product tour below:
The Nikon D850 is coming soon and will be available for hire HERE