The D850 announcement had to be a big deal for Nikon. Financially they have been struggling, the D5600 got a resounding "meh" in the marketplace, and while the CEO has finally stated that mirrorless is important, there has not yet been a how or by when commentary.
How nice that they aimed high, and announcement specs being accurate, have likely hit their goal.
Already I have read "reviews" of the camera, written by people who have never even seen it. How nuts is that? Clearly there have been a lot of folks under deep NDAs shooting the camera for some time, Nikon Ambassadors most prevalently, based on quotes in the releases. This is a good plan, get known and respected Nikon using artists to stand up about your new product. These are people who while being ambassadors, also have very important reputations to maintain and are unlikely to blow smoke.
Let's get to what Nikon has announced.
General and Stills
The D850 is an FX camera using a full frame sensor. Nikon stated that they designed the sensor but did not build it. That matters less than what it will deliver in your hands. That they use the same terminology of Back Side Illuminated CMOS as Sony does, will cause folks to conclude that the sensor comes from Sony. If so, good, because Sony sensors kick butt not just for resolution but for the far more important dynamic range. On the critical, to most pros, subject of dynamic range, while Nikon does not publish this kind of data, the representative suggested that in his experience, the D850 delivers one full stop more dynamic range than the D810.
The sensor in the D850 delivers 45.7 megapixels of resolution. This is a bump from the D810 that the camera replaces and just over that of the excellent sensor in Sony's a7R Mark II. Unlike some other high megapixel sensors, the D850's internal processing and bandwidth allows for bursts of 7 frames per second, with a push to 9 frames per second if the optional MB-D18 battery grip is added as well as an EN-EL-18a/b battery. Moreover the buffer is rated at 51 full sized RAW images, so high burst rates are both achievable and usable. Doing the math for all the piece parts, adding the grip to get 9fps adds one thousand dollars to the price tag.
The base ISO is from 64 to 102,400. The availability of the lower base ISO is a big deal for landscape and macro photographers. This is fundamentally different from pulling down the ISO in other cameras which did not improve quality or colour. I look forward to seeing the difference in real life comparisons. We were shown prints from JPEGs but at the time of the briefing, the Nikon spokesperson indicated that they did not at that time have a RAW converter ready. I really hope that he meant not demo ready. The buyer of the D850 is going to shoot in RAW. You don't spend this kind of money to shoot in JPEG.
The D850 uses the same autofocus system as the D5 delivering 153 unique focus points. I care less about the number of points than about where they are and how well they work in low light, but I tested the D5 stringently and highly recommended it for speedy and accurate autofocus, even in crappy light. Since the D850 has the same system, there's no reason why it should not be comparable. The Expeed 5 processor is proven for performance, battery life and not turning the camera into a space heater. AF in video is contrast detect only so prone to hunting and you can hear the lens motors in all glass except those with pulse motors, which are not Nikon's best optics.
The D850 offers a tilting rear LCD (YAY!) with touchscreen capability (MEH). Nikon indicated that this is not the same touchscreen capability as was found in the D5500 that did such a good job of controlling false positives. Whether it is field useful will only be determined by in depth hands-on review.
When shooting in Live View, with the electronic shutter, the D850 can be completely silent at time of capture. Sony made a big deal of this with the a9 by publishing championship golf shots made during the swing and follow-through. For many events, silent is a killer feature. While I like the sound of a camera shutter, we no longer need to be able to hear it clatter across a busy street. In real world testing, silent means silent
The D850 will be able to engage with Nikon's SB5000 speed light via radio control with the same adapter used with the D5 and D500. I would have been surprised if this was not there, this kind of functionality is table stakes at this point. Nikon has removed the popup flash completely. CLS lovers will find this disappointing but the Advanced Wireless Lighting system is Nikon's future, and the hardened top deck is a benefit. There is some speculation that the massive viewfinder, which really is very pleasing, needed the space formerly occupied by the former popup. Serious image creators wouldn't be using that flash for anything other than signalling other flashes anyway. No great loss. Unfortunately, there is still no radio transmitter standalone unit, a la Canon, so you have to devote an SB5000 and the wireless controller kit to drive any off camera units, as with the D5 and D500. The lack of a dedicated non-flash controller is a missing.
Nikon has resurrected three levels of RAW files at different resolutions. Respectfully, I saw no value to this in the past and do not see why one would pay for a 45MP camera only to shoot it for 11MP resolution. This makes no sense to me, unless it was on some checklist that had to be delivered. The camera is stated to be very fast and storage is cheap.
Nikon has addressed the needs of serious shooters with a brighter viewfinder, but not an EVF, and in not committing to extra power drain is rating the camera to 1840 shots on a charge. This can be extended with the battery grip.
The body is of magnesium alloy and is weather sealed, both critical for serious users.
Given the high resolution capability, Nikon has added an internal focus stacking mode to simplify the capture of up to 300 images with the focus shifts done in camera based on user configuration. This could be a huge advantage for some users, but note that fortunately Nikon only focused on making the images, not on trying to combine them. For that you will still use third party software. I commend Nikon for staying out of the post processing software business.
The camera has built in WiFi and Bluetooth, but these are accessed using the up until now disappointing Snapbridge system. I asked the question of the presenter at the media briefing and it was his position that this is the same Snapbridge that we have come to know and despise.
Nikon has not ignored video in the D850. They specify internal recording of 4K UHD at either 24fps or 30fps. I asked the bandwidth and frame structure questions at the media briefing. There was no answer, but I did get a follow up reply shortly afterward. The internal bandwidth for video is 144MB/s and the frame structure is IPB. These make sense given the current limitations in most SDXC cards, but won't take full advantage of the pipeline capability in UHS-II cards that the camera supports directly. IPB is a lesser option to ALL-I. Casual videographers likely won't care, but the very serious time oriented folks will be less impressed. I don't see at this point the D850 being an A roll camera so this may not really matter. Internal recording uses H.264 encoding. No other options are offered. That's a bit disappointing. I can understand not supporting ProRes, but it is 2017 and H.265 is a superior offering to H.264. Files recorded internally can be stored as either MOV or MP4. Nothing differentiating in that, but it does make plopping them on the web easy without transcoding.
Nikon has included both Zebras and Focus Peaking, again table stakes offerings in the video options. I am glad to see them of course, but with all due respect to the flowery language in the release, there is nothing unique or differentiating here.
Nikon does offer clean uncompressed footage out the HDMI port as 8 bit 4:2:2. This is critical for any kind of serious video as writing to memory cards is just not an efficient route, due to size limitations, cost and quality loss through compression. Good move Nikon. That other company whose name ends in "on" could stand to buy a clue from you.
There are both microphone and headphone jacks provided. Table stakes again, but if either was missing, the loss would have invalidated the camera for any kind of serious video use.
Using the video capabilities you can also shoot either 4K or 8K time-lapse video. Time-lapse is a bit of a niche market, so it is not clear at this time why so much attention is being paid to it.
I left storage to the end of the announcement assessment. I did so because I am disappointed. Nikon wisely choose dual card slots, again table stakes in 2017 but screwed it up in my opinion. Unlike their intelligent choice in the D5 offering two XQD or two SDXC slots, in the D850 there is one each of SDXC or XQD. The price of XQD cards is much more reasonable now and the performance improvement is enormous. I have taken the position that two slots are the minimum but they should be identical in structure and I continue to do so. If you can afford $4400 Canadian for a new camera, you can afford a few hundred for current fast memory cards. I think that this is the wrong message to send to the buyer of this high end product. Even the Nikon representative agreed with this position, his legitimate fear that a buyer may not replace their old drag-butt SD cards and stuff them into this high performance camera and then blame Nikon when it all goes legs in the air. The SD slot is UHS-II capable, but the internal bus won't take advantage of the 300MB/s capability on the top end cards.
Where I thought the teaser ad from a few weeks ago was dumb and amateur hour, the announcement describes a camera that could significantly help save Nikon's bacon. The D5 and the D500 have proven to be superb offerings, and the D850 looks to fit that mold. Where Nikon has been less successful is in the dead point and shoot or high end PS market, and the D5600 really delivered nothing of significance that the already superb D5500 did not do. Nikon appears to know how to build serious prosumer and professional grade products. It's good for all of us to see strong competition in this space. I cannot give this camera a rating because I have not shot it in the field. I few shutter squeezes in a boardroom do not count. When I have the opportunity to complete an evaluation, I will do so at that time.
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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.