Those of us of a certain vintage remember the day we dropped our dial-up modems in favor of broadband. It was a revelatory experience. We look back now and wonder how we ever managed without broadband.
Nikon’s D850 is likely to be a similarly revelatory camera—one that sets a resolution and speed benchmark that will reset our expectations for what a DSLR is capable of.
Boasting a new 45-megapixel sensor without a low-pass filter—the first backlit sensor in a Nikon full-frame model—the D850 features an ISO range of 64-25,600 (expandable to 32-102,400). That’s the lowest base ISO of any full-frame DSLR to date.
To ensure you achieve razor-sharp results, the shutter and mirror mechanisms have been redesigned to dampen vibration-induced blur (a problem that reportedly bedeviled the D850’s predecessor).
Despite the high-res sensor, the D850 can burst at 7 fps with AF tracking engaged. By comparison, Canon’s 5D Mark IV hits 7 fps but it’s only saving 30-megapixel images, not 45-megapixel frames. Using the optional MB-D18 battery grip ($400) with the Nikon D5’s battery installed, you can hit 9 fps. This is incredible speed, topped only recently by Sony’s a7R III. You can save 51 14-bit RAW images or 170 12-bit RAW files during burst mode.
If you need more speed, there’s an electronic shutter and a DX crop mode which combine to deliver a 30-fps burst of 8.6-megapixel images.
As for autofocusing, the D850 inherits the D5’s AF system with 153 AF points with 99 cross-type points (15 of which are sensitive to f/8). Low-light focusing is also solid: you can focus down to -4EV.
When the D850 was first teased, Nikon said it would enable users to create 8K time lapses. That’s true, sort of. The camera can create 4K time-lapse movies in camera but for an 8K time-lapse, you’ll need to use post-processing software. When shooting in time-lapse mode, the D850 will switch to an electronic shutter, sparing your mechanical shutter from the wear and tear of potentially thousands of actuations—a thoughtful touch.
Another new feature is focus stacking. The D850 can shoot a predetermined number of images and move the focus point a predetermined number of times. The images aren’t stacked in camera, you’ll still need to composite them in post, but it does automate one end of an otherwise time-consuming process.
Finally, there’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy for automatically transferring images to mobile devices.
For all its innovative internals, there’s no correspondingly significant change to the camera’s exterior. There are, however, some nice new touches, such as illuminated buttons and a 3.2-inch tilting touch screen. If you’re a fan of Nikon’s button design and ergonomics, as we are, the D850 won’t disappoint.
Compared to rivals like Canon’s 5D Mark IV, though, it is a tad heavy.
There are a pair of memory card slots: one for SD cards and the other for XQD memory. You can enjoy faster transfer speeds with XQD, but it’s pricier per-megabyte than SD memory. You won’t find a pop-up flash—we didn’t miss it, but some might.
We paired with N.J. photographer and director David Patiño to give the D850 a workout. He tells us that ISO performance at 3,200 was “leaps and bounds” better than anything he’s shot before. By comparison, his go-to studio DSLR, the Canon 5DS, is usually kept at much lower ISOs. The D850’s high resolution makes it a great choice for studio work, but its speed and low-light performance give it added versatility for events, wildlife and sports.
Color reproduction was terrific, he notes.
Like other Nikon DSLRs, the D850 offers 4K recording but unlike prior models, it won’t crop the sensor on you. Instead, you’ll get a full readout across the width of the sensor. Video quality was impressive, with in-camera video delivering rich, color-accurate scenes. We did spot some occasional rolling shutter distortion.
The D850 doesn’t offer the Log modes found on cameras like Sony’s a7 series and the 5D Mark IV. That said, Nikon’s flat picture profile does an adequate job de-saturating a scene for color grading in post.
Full HD video can be recorded at up to 60p and you can output an 8-bit, 4:2:2 file via HDMI out to an external recorder. The lack of a 10-bit file means that filmmakers looking to produce HDR video may need to go elsewhere. However, fans of slow motion do get full HD video recording at 120fps. Sadly, there’s no focus peaking when you’re shooting 4K video.
Patiño says he was impressed with the speed and accuracy of the D850 when it came to focusing through the viewfinder. Shooting a youth soccer game using AF-C 3D tracking, we noticed the D850 would occasionally switch focus from a subject in the foreground to a background subject and get stuck there for a few frames before returning to the foreground individual. Nonetheless, even in burst shooting, tracking was very reliable.
Live view autofocusing, however, wasn’t as speedy or consistent.
There is an electronic shutter, but it’s only available in live view. Unlike electronic shutter implementations in mirrorless cameras, you’ll actually get slower performance when you switch from mechanical (6 fps vs. 7 fps) when shooting at full resolution.
Patiño says he had a few connection drops between the camera and his iPhone 7 using SnapBridge.
If there’s one area of camera performance that Nikon has locked down, it’s battery life. The D850 is no exception. It delivers a whopping 1,840 shots per charge, per CIPA. That’s double the performance of Canon’s 5D Mark IV and nearly four times the stated battery life of Sony’s a7R III. Patiño shot stills with it for two eight-hour days straight and it didn’t tap out on him.
Notes from the TIPA Test Bench
PDN is a member of the Technical Image Press Association, which has contracted with Image Engineering for camera testing. Click here for the full lab report.
The Nikon D850 performs well in the lab. For example, a measurement of 2591 line pairs per picture height captured by the D850 at ISO64—94 percent of the theoretical maximum—gives one an indication of the incredible amount of detail that can be recorded by the camera.
The Nikon D850 lacks an anti-aliasing filter, allowing more detail to be captured, albeit with an accompanying risk of moiré in images. However, as moiré occurs when a visual pattern exceeds the resolution of the sensor, it is unlikely to be much of a problem for the D850.
The native ISO range of the Nikon D850 is impressively wide, from ISO 64 to 25,600. Lab measurements show excellent resolution at any ISOs likely to be needed. For example, at ISO 400, the Nikon D850 records 2389 line pairs per picture height (87 percent of the theoretical maximum). The Nikon D810 tested at the same ISO achieved 91 percent of the theoretical maximum, but, as the sensor had fewer pixels this represented fewer line pairs per picture height (2228). The D800 recorded only 1993 line pairs per picture height.
Resolution and Fine Detail
For the D850, only at the highest ISO tested (25,600), does one see a decline in the generally excellent resolution. At ISO 25,600, the Nikon D850 captures 1849 line pairs per picture height (67 percent of the theoretical maximum). However, even this lower performance in the absolute measure of line pairs per picture height is not much less than the Nikon D810 at the lower speed of ISO 12,800 (1885 line pairs per picture height, 77 percent).
Capture of fine detail is very good in the Nikon D850, and there is little observable difference in fine texture at high contrast between ISO 64 and ISO 1600. At ISO 400 in a high-contrast scene, the Nikon D850 produced an artifact score of 24.8 percent; at the same ISO, the Nikon D810 produced 40.1 percent. Few artifacts are present in images shot by the Nikon D850 of high-contrast scenes, however, low-contrast scenes shot at ISO 6400 (51.5 percent) and ISO 12,800 (61.8 percent) both show more artifacts, and the D850 has poorer scores than the D810.
Contrasted edges in test images captured by the Nikon D850 at various ISOs, look natural to the eye when viewed at 100 percent. The Nikon images do not show the artificiality of a heavily sharpened edge. The sharpening curve indicates that the degree of overshoot and undershoot is relatively moderate with modulations below 11 percent (with the exception of modulation of 11.6 percent at ISO 2200). In comparison, the D810 produces less modulation (generally less than 5.5 percent) in its sharpening. However, undersharpening can cause images to look displeasingly flat (although this can be adjusted by the user in post-processing).
Noise & Dynamic Range
The measurements of visual noise from the Nikon D850 show that noise occurs primarily in the darker end of the middle tones. The measurements of noise show relatively large amounts of noise, and that noise increases with increasing ISO. However, large amounts of noise is an expected effect with cameras with such high resolutions. Images made by the D850 have less noise than those made by the D800.
The dynamic range of the Nikon D850, when tested in accordance with ISO standard 15739, is smaller than some competitors’ and not as good as the Nikon D800. The Nikon D850 shows a dynamic range of between 8.6 and 8.9 stops between ISOs ranging from ISO 64 to ISO 3200.
Color reproduction by the Nikon D850 is very good, with only a few reds showing strong deviation from the reference color at ISO 64. Color reproduction is consistent as ISO increases, showing the versatility of this camera for different ISOs. Color difference for this camera (∆E) ranges from 9.9 to 10.4 at ISOs from ISO 64 through ISO 6400. Even at ISO 12,800 it is only 10.7.
The automatic white balance shows excellent results at ISOs through 6400. The white balance is similar between all these ISOs, meaning that pictures taken at a range of ISOs will show similar white balances. At ISO 12,800 and above, the white balance is still very acceptable.
The image quality in video mode is consistently good at both low and high ISO, although the videos made by the Nikon D850 show nowhere near the excellent resolution of the still images. All measurements also show an improvement in video over the D810. Sharpening is moderate and texture loss is moderate. The most texture loss occurs at high ISO when capturing a low-contrast scene. There is less visual noise in all viewing conditions of videos shot at high ISO compared to those produced by the Nikon D810. For example, at 100 percent, the noise score is 1.0 in the film made by the D850, and 1.9 in the one made by the D810.
Nikon executives have talked openly about their intentions to build a full-frame mirrorless camera, presumably to claw back some of the market share scooped up by Sony. Whatever their mirrorless ambitions, the D850 is a testament to Nikon’s continued innovation in DSLRs. By delivering both speed and resolution, the D850 breaks new ground for the category.
PROS: Excellent image quality; high-speed shooting; fast and accurate autofocusing; solid low-light performance; 4K video reads full width of sensor; weather-sealed design.
CONS: Some rolling shutter shooting 4K; no focus peaking for 4K video recording; slower electronic shutter than rivals; highest speeds require extra battery pack; lacks 10-bit video.