What is the Nikon D850?
Nikon wetted the appetite of many photographers back in 2017 with news that it was working on a follow-up to its high-resolution full-frame D810 in the form of the Nikon D850. A lot has happened since then, so is the Nikon D850 still the ground-breaking camera it was at launch, and can it still compete today?
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 was the D850, which set its sights on being the perfect all-rounder. Since then we’ve had a series of mirrorless cameras that achieve a similar blend of features, but the D850 was the first.
On paper, the Nikon D850 has a jaw-dropping spec that’s tailored for almost any subject or situation. It wasn’t exactly cheap at launch, but today – and yes, it’s still being sold today – it sells for around $2,800 / £2,600 and looks very good value indeed at that price. It’s true that mirrorless cameras have come to dominate the market since the D850’s launch, but this is a big, sturdy, ultra-high resolution camera that still has a lot to offer, especially for those who prefer optical viewfinders and cameras with a bit of heft. It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that the D850 is approaching cult camera status as the high water mark of DSLR image quality and performance.
DSLRs still have many fans, and you can find out more about the Nikon DSLR ecosystem in our guides to the best Nikon DSLRs and best Nikon F-mount lenses.
Nikon D850 – Features
Inside the Nikon D850 is what was then 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 ($397 / £389) 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 XQD format was a pretty short-lived storage medium, but it’s physically identical to the newer and widely used CFexpress Type B format, and a subsequent firmware update has made the D850 CFexpress-compatible.
The D850 also inherits Nikon’s best DSLR 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 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. This is a key point to keep in mind with DSLRs – they effectively have two AF systems; one for viewfinder shooting and another for live view.
Metering is left in the capable hands of the manufacturer’s 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). Subsequent launches, such as the Panasonic Lumix S1R and Sony A1 and A7R V have made these ultra-high resolutions mainstream, so by now most users will have storage setups and computer hardware that can cope.
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 Nikon 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. By current mirrorless standards, the D850’s video specifications are pretty ordinary, but it’s still an effective video camera for more considered filming setups (not vlogging) and shouldn’t be underestimated.
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 seen on a Nikon DSLR, with a 0.75x magnification; below it sits a 2.36m-dot 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.
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. This is perhaps one of the areas where an old-school DSLR still has an advantage over newer but smaller mirrorless rivals.
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.
Nikon D850 – Silent shooting
We’ve seen Nikon attempt to quieten its DSLRs in the past by adding shooting modes that effectively dampen the sound of mirror slap. The D850 is equipped with two such modes (one offering 3fps continuous shooting) and both can be found from the drive mode dial on the top corner of the body.
Although these modes do suppress the sound of the shutter a little, mirror slap is still audible. To go one better, Nikon has introduced a silent, zero-vibration electronic shutter to the D850 that enables users to capture images in complete silence when using Live View.
Users are given two silent Live View modes to choose from in the photo shooting menu. 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 well received, particularly by wedding and wildlife photographers who are often at risk of frightening or disturbing their subjects in quiet environments.
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.
Now, of course, silent shooting is a staple feature of mirrorless cameras, but many might be surprised to learn that a DSLR behemoth like the D850 can do it too.
Nikon D850 – Viewfinder and screen
One of the constraints of the Nikon D810 was that it had a fixed screen. After years of waiting it’s good to finally see Nikon embracing a tilting touchscreen on one of its high-resolution pro-spec DSLRs.
The screen is essentially the same 2.36m-dot LCD that you get on the D500. It tilts up and down for waist-level shooting, but isn’t as ingenious as the screen you get on the Fujifilm X-T2 and later models in that it constrains you to shooting 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 offers a big step in the right direction. As for its response, it’s incredibly sensitive and precise to the touch, rivalling the response of Canon’s superb touchscreens.
The viewfinder is equally as impressive as the screen. 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.
It’s possible to turn on a viewfinder grid display, and I found myself assigning the Fn1 button to viewfinder virtual horizon, which loads a helpful levelling guide on the horizontal and vertical axis to avoid skewed shots. Being the optical type the viewfinder has zero lag, 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 – Autofocus
Nikon’s professional DSLR’s have long had a good reputation for putting in fast and accurate focusing performances. The D850 is no exception, and with 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.
This 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 D850’s autofocus system excelled beyond my expectations.
I experienced no difficultly at all tracking moving subjects travelling directly towards the camera, even in fading light. A quick fire burst of 18 frames at 7fps set to continuous AF (AF-C) resulted in just three frames of a train travelling towards the camera in excess of 60mph not being perfectly pin-sharp.
The 55 user-selectable points are expanded relative to the D810, but they’re still grouped towards the centre of the frame, meaning there may be the odd occasion when your subject is positioned in an area of the frame where you need to focus first and then recompose.
In similar fashion to other Nikon DSLRs, the AF is changed between single (AF-S) and continuous (AF-C) modes by pressing the AF button located inside the AF/MF switch and turning the rear dial. Holding down the button and turning the front dial controls the number of points in use in AF-C mode and is also used to select 3D AF tracking.
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 – far easier than any previous high resolution DSLR Nikon has produced.
The crystal-clear rear display, with its responsive touch control and accurate colour 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 is so good you’re likely to use it more than you think, especially to navigate the menu.
Testing the D850 at a wedding produced a pleasing set of results with two of my favourite Sigma Art lenses – the 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art and 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM. The true test was its silent Live View mode, where I opted for Mode 1 ahead of Mode 2 to prioritise resolution ahead of speed.
While it’s great that the D850 can capture shots without trace of a sound, you’re still totally reliant on contrast-detection for autofocus in Live View, both when shooting stills and video. 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.
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 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 the best quality cards too.
I managed to shoot 20 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’ll be required to use the finest 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.
As for Nikon’s wireless connectivity, 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 clearly 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 – Video
The D850 is capable of producing excellent movie footage in the hands of a videographer. It’s capable of in-camera 4K recording (3840 x 2160) at 30fps and Full HD (1920 x 1080) at up to 60fps for a maximum record time of 29mins 59secs.
For cinematographers, the feature that sets the D850 apart from other DSLRs is its 4K and 8K time-lapse capabilities. The time-lapse movie and intervalometer settings are easy enough to get your head around, offering advanced options such as being able to turn on silent shooting and exposure smoothing.
Once you’ve setup 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.
Nikon D850 – Image quality
The increase to 45.7 megapixels sees the D850 yield a slightly higher resolution than 42.4-megapixel Exmor R CMOS sensor found in the Sony A7R II and A7R III but it isn’t quite as high as the 50.6-megapixel resolution offered by Canon’s EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R twins. With its lack of optical low-pass filter, the sensor produces a sensational level of detail, with great scope for cropping and maintaining high resolution when required. Since the D850’s launch, the Sony A1 and A7R IV and A7R V have offered higher resolutions still, but the increases are incremental, and the D850 still belongs to the ‘ultra-high resolution’ club.
Despite the sensor being densely packed with pixels, it offers wide dynamic range leverage and allows users to return a high level of shadow detail to Raw files with minimal noise. Pushing the D850’s sensitivity to its extremes reveals that ISO 6400 is usable, and the same can be said for ISO 12,800 with some vigilant noise reduction applied in post.
The D850 resolves such a high level of detail that it was necessary to shoot our resolution chart from double the distance to determine our results. The sensor resolves 4800l/ph at ISO 100 – a sensational figure that it manages to maintain up to ISO 400. Beyond this point it drops a little to a very respectable 4400l/ph at ISO 800 and 4000l/ph at ISO 1600.
The sensor showed no problem resolving 3600l/ph at ISO 6400, with a slightly lower 3200l/ph figure being recorded at both ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600. Detail starts to tail off more beyond this point as noise becomes ever more prevalent at higher sensitivity settings.
To produce the best results at high ISO, you’ll want to shoot in Raw. However, I was left impressed by the in-camera processing that’s applied to the D850’s JPEG images, with fine detail being well preserved up to ISO 12,800.
A close examination of raw files revealed noise-free results between ISO 100-800, with trace luminance noise starting to creep in at ISO 1600. ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 are perfectly usable, and I wouldn’t fear pushing to ISO 12,800 – just beware that shots taken at this setting will require some noise reduction applied during processing.
I noticed a drop in saturation beginning at ISO 25,600, and noise becomes so imposing at ISO 51,200 and ISO 102,400 that you’ll want to avoid these settings at all costs. Whereas ISO 3200-6400 was the limit at which I’d want to shoot at with the D810, I wouldn’t be too fearful of pushing to ISO 12,800 on the D850 if there’s no other option.
Verdict: Should I buy the Nikon D850?
Nikon users had a long three-year wait for a replacement to the mighty D810, but the great news is that the D850 doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, delivering impressive features by the truck load.
Professionals, semi-professionals and serious enthusiasts who settle for it be thunderstruck, even now, by the performance of the new 45.7-million-pixel full-frame (FX-format) CMOS sensor, particularly its low-light capabilities at high ISO. Nikon is well aware that a professional DSLR needs more than a high resolution and excellent noise response to satisfy photographers in their droves, and by successfully marrying high resolution with high speed they’ve made the D850 one of the most versatile DSLRs around.
For anyone who carries a D810 for high-resolution shooting and a D500 for fast action work, for example, the D850 is capable of replacing both in a single body. The only thing to factor in here is that you will require the MB-D18 battery grip and EN-EL18b battery to shoot at 9fps, which adds considerably to the body-only price.
It’s not just the speed and the way the 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.
Other attractive features are its tilting touchscreen and impressive video capabilities, although I do feel that both of these areas could have been made better by offering touch control of key exposure variables and implementing a faster live view focusing system. The only other disappointment was SnapBridge connectivity, which didn’t perform faultlessly and wasn’t always reliable at transmitting images to my mobile device as they were taken.
There’s no question that the D850 deserves to be taken seriously even now, because it’s going to appeal to so many users, from action, sports and wildlife photographers to landscape, portrait, wedding, architectural and still-life photographers. Not everyone enjoys the handling of mirrorless cameras or the electronic viewing experience, and for those that still prefer the DSLR design, the D850 is an extremely compelling alternative, especially at today’s prices. If DSLRs like the D850 are a dying breed, then you should get it while you still can!
Find more great DSLRs from Nikon in our guide to the best Nikon DSLRs ever.