Kicking Butt and Taking Names : The Nikon D850 Review

The new King of the high MP bodies - the Nikon D850

The new King of the high MP bodies - the Nikon D850

I really don't think that there was as much hype and expectation around a DSLR in 2017 than what surrounded the release and shipment of Nikon's D850.

Given the financial challenges that the company has faced, regardless of where they originated, analysts have been suggesting that Nikon was getting pushed into a very unpleasant corner and only through something significant, could they hope to fight their way out.

Nikon's pro cameras are awesome.  The D5 is a real workhorse and a joy to shoot.  The prosumer D500 defined the space for crop sensor DSLRs.  And despite serious issues with excreable wireless software under the guise of Snapbridge, the D3xxx and D5xxx series remain popular, even though the latest two releases have deprecated functionality over what their predecessors did.  Nikon had also had some unpleasant initial results with both the D600 and D800 resulting in the D610 and D810 in very short order to get past the negative stigma that became affixed to the original models.  The D750 was successful, but again was feature bereft in the face of strong competition in the full frame market.  Simply put, the D850 was seen as being the last swing for the fence.

Nikon has hit it out of the park.  Sports analogies get tiresome quickly, so I'm going to try to stop using them, but let's give credit where credit is due.  The team at Nikon have a winner on their hands, and their only real problem now is delivering inventory.  While annoying for buyers, it's an acceptable business problem to have.

Quick Overview

Readers like to get the tech specs early and often, so they've told me.  The D850 is a full frame body capable of mounting either FX or DX Nikon mount lenses.  The sensor delivers a resolution of 45.7 megapixels.  It shoots in both RAW and JPEG, but why someone would spend this much cash to shoot JPEG is outside my area of understanding.  The D850 also supports the TIFF file format, for those wanting in camera processing but a full quality output.  Living the in 90s would also help.  There are two card slots, one XQD and one SDXC UHS-II compliant.  The camera has a bright optical viewfinder with 100% coverage.  The viewfinder diopter has a range from -3 to +1.  The focusing screen is a bright matte type.  Mirror lockup capability is built in.  The camera has a dedicated depth of field preview button.  The shutter is a vertical traverse design with shutter speed range from 1/8000 to 30 seconds, selectable in steps of 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV or 1 EV.  There are both Time and Bulb modes.  Flash synchronization is 1/250.  Shooting is available in single frame, continuous low and continuous high at up to 7 frames per second.  Adding an MB-18 pack and EN-EL18b battery raises the maximum burst rate to 9 frames per second.  The exposure meter offers TTL metering in three patterns (matrix, centre weight, spot) and offers a maximum of 180K metering pixels.  The metering is effective from -3EV to 20EV using an f/1.4 lens and ISO 100 as a baseline.  Exposure modes are PASM with exposure compensation range of +-5EV. ISO range is 64 to 25600 native with a single Lo (32 equiv) and two Hi (51200, 102400 equiv).  Note that extended ISOs are not real, they are computational.  Autofocus is available in single spot or dynamic modes using 9, 25, 72, or 153 focus points.  Focus can be set to single, continuous or automatic select.  Auto focus range is from -4EV to 20 EV with an ISO 100 baseline.  Video capability extends to 4K UHD at 30fps, and includes 1080p at up to 60fps.  There is a built in microphone, an external mic jack and a headphone jack.  Clean video can be output via the HDMI C port.  Files can be transferred and the camera remotely controlled via USB 3.  WiFi and Bluetooth are built in and are managed by the Snapbridge utility on your smartphone.  Power is supplied by a single EN-EL15a battery with a CIPA rating of 1640 images on a charge.  The body alone weighs 915g.

The Unboxing Experience

The D850 comes packed nicely like every other Nikon.  Nikon has not adopted the Apple "unboxing experience" meme, and I don't care.  I use the box once, and then it goes on a shelf in the basement until I sell the camera.  Pretty cardboard does not a better product make, and I am likely now so cynical that I see such things as diversionary tactics for something that isn't what I wanted or expected.  So don't plan on making a film about the unboxing because real photographers will not care less.

The first thing you hit is the documentation and the warranty.  I live in Canada, and Nikon Canada provides a two year manufacturer's warranty on the body.  Since prices are mostly fixed in the industry, you won't save any significant money by shopping across borders, and you will lose a year of warranty.  Not a good value.  The documentation is Nikon standard.  A small booklet with too small type.  At least there is information in the booklet, instead of the one pager cheat sheets other vendors have resorted to.   A digital camera is a complex device and just because some customers are too stupid to bother reading the documentation, that doesn't mean that serious folks will not.  I immediately went online and downloaded the PDF of the manual and loaded into iBooks so I could search it on my phone, my tablet, and my computer.  Plus the bigger, brighter and zoomable screens are easier to read.  I do this for all the stuff that I own, because my phone is, sadly, always with me.

Next we find the battery, an EN-EL15a, the charger, which thankfully plugs into a wall and does not require me to charge the battery in the camera and a USB cable.  Cameras that can be charged via USB are convenient when you are driving, but requiring me to charge a camera via USB makes me right ornery, especially when I have to spend another $100 on a wall charger.  Fortunately, Nikon gets it and doesn't force me to use stupidly slow USB charging.  Point for Nikon.

Front view.  Note the taller body and the arrangement of controls on the top deck.  Remote inputs are on the front behind rubber grommets.

Front view.  Note the taller body and the arrangement of controls on the top deck.  Remote inputs are on the front behind rubber grommets.

Let's talk about the body.  It's the same chassis style as the D810, meaning a relatively large body, although not near the D5 and reasonably similar to the D500.  This is a serious camera and it foregoes scene modes, and full AUTO, based on the knowledge that the buyer who is spending over $4000 on a camera body, probably isn't looking for something that is a big point and shoot.  That doesn't mean that Nikon's full auto is crap, it's actually very good, it's just unlikely to be a use case for the buyer of the D850.

Rear view shows clearly labeled and well spaced buttons.  Back button focus falls right under the thumb.  Note the eyepiece shield for long exposures and the locking knurled diopter adjuster.

Rear view shows clearly labeled and well spaced buttons.  Back button focus falls right under the thumb.  Note the eyepiece shield for long exposures and the locking knurled diopter adjuster.

The buttons are large, well spaced, and the camera isn't stuffed with myriad micro buttons lacking any labeling other than that they are programmable.  Back button focus, AF-ON in Nikon parlance, is exactly where it should be as are the rest of the controls.  If you've shot a D8xx or D4 or D5 body, you already know how to operate the D850.  The camera accepts both SDXC and XQD cards.  I have chastised other manufacturers for mixing card types in a dual slot body, so Nikon also gets a smack in the head with a large cold dead fish for not just putting two XQD cards in the thing and stopping there.  SD is a fragile and fairly lousy format.  It's also limited in performance throughput.  XQD is really very fast and the capacity options are far superior.  It's also seriously tough.  The downside is that you need a new card reader  Until you get one, you will have to endure downloading via USB, which if you've not done it, is normally akin to watching paint dry in a thatched hut during monsoon season.  In the case of the D850 and the updated Nikon Transfer 2 (part of ViewNX-i) the transfer is pleasantly quick.  Importing from the camera to Lightroom worked well too, with all the slowdowns being, SURPRISE, in Lightroom.

The viewfinder is nice and big and round.  I like it.  I would still get a Hoodman eyecup for the camera, because I like their ability to keep out glare and reflections.  Nikon makes their diopter adjuster act like an old style watch winding knob.  You have to pull it out to make a change.  Since I am pulling cameras in and out of bags all the time, I love this little feature and it's so smart and so aligned to the serious photographer, that it bugs me that other non-Nikon pro cameras do not have this little bit of design excellence.

I have average sized hands, and the camera fits my hands perfectly well.  Nikon Canada sent along their 24-120 f/4 lens at my request, because I think it's terrific and I am not fond of the 24-70 range.  With today's sensors, that one extra stop doesn't mean anything to me, and if I want really shallow depth of field, I'm going with a prime anyway.

What Else Was In My Kit?

MB-D18 Battery Grip does not remove the in body battery and provides vertical controls.  Very nice but overpriced.

MB-D18 Battery Grip does not remove the in body battery and provides vertical controls.  Very nice but overpriced.

The good people who handle media relations for Nikon here also sent me an MB-D18 battery grip.  I did not request this, but they know that I prefer battery grips on cameras to not having them.  The MB-D18 is a bit more complicated than others because you have a choice of battery to use, either a second EN-EL15a or the EN-EL18b from the D5.  If you want to use the bigger battery (I do), you also need a separate battery cover. 

This is the combination of the BL-5 battery cover adapter and the EN-EL-18b battery.  This is the same battery as used in the Nikon D5.  I like this combination in the battery grip, but I don't like the pricing.

This is the combination of the BL-5 battery cover adapter and the EN-EL-18b battery.  This is the same battery as used in the Nikon D5.  I like this combination in the battery grip, but I don't like the pricing.

It mounts up very nicely, but didn't tighten down as much as I would like, and when I add the prices up for the grip, the new end cap, the bigger battery etc. it kicks over a thousand bucks, and in my opinion, however great the grip feels and whatever function improvements it delivers, that's just too darn expensive for a battery holder.  Nikon's not alone in this bit of customer scalping, every battery grip from every OEM is overpriced for being a chunk of plastic with a shutter release that holds a battery.   And that sadly, is why third party grips that sell for under $100 have completely eaten the OEM's lunch.  Want to sell more grips?  Stop with the complete rip-off pricing.  Oh you'll see all the Nikon Ambassadors with battery grips.  I wonder if they pay retail?  HAHAHA I slay me.  Despite all my bitching, I do prefer the feel of the camera with the grip as opposed to without it.  You can also prioritize which battery gets used first.

This is the componentry of the wireless communications control kit.  The A10 adapter screws into the remote port on the camera.  The R10 receiver plugs into the port on the A10.  The T10 looks like those awful infrared remotes but pairs with the A10 for remote radio triggering of the camera.  I call this kit a MUST HAVE

This is the componentry of the wireless communications control kit.  The A10 adapter screws into the remote port on the camera.  The R10 receiver plugs into the port on the A10.  The T10 looks like those awful infrared remotes but pairs with the A10 for remote radio triggering of the camera.  I call this kit a MUST HAVE

I was also sent the wireless communications kit, including the WR-R10, WR-A10 and WR-T10, to allow use of the SB-5000 speedlight off camera, as well as a single SB-5000.  If you read my review of the SB-5000 before, you already know that I think it's Nikon's best speedlight ever.  I expect great things from it with the D850.

Nikon's best Speedlight EVER, the SB-5000

Nikon's best Speedlight EVER, the SB-5000

As I always do, I checked with Nikon for any firmware updates and at the time of this writing, there were not any.

Getting to the Shooting

I had a 64GB Lexar XQD in the studio from past tests and installed it.  Screw SD cards.  SD is a crap format whose time is long past.  Formatting the card was fast and the same process as for any other card.  I then sat down and did a full reset on the camera to return it to factory defaults and erase any changes made by folks who had the camera before me.  I then went through my Nikon checklist, turning off JPEGs (I mean really, who buys a camera with this massive resolution only to shoot freaking JPEGs), unbinding ambient exposure compensation from flash exposure compensation (I continue to mention this because the default is rather dumb if you've got any flash skills at all), setting the flash to AUTO FP sync speeds (because high speed sync is a joy) and also setting the flash to rear curtain sync default.  I picked my usual small group of AF points because although the camera has 153 AF points, I always shoot with a small array in the centre and use the FLRS method for my shooting unless I have the camera locked down on a tripod.

As all Nikons, this camera comes with a lovely branded strap, which if it were mine would never get out of the box.  I'm not Mr. Bigshot Photographer and I don't care whether other folks are impressed by my camera, any more than a surgeon cares if other people are impressed by his or her scalpel.  I have however been robbed of gear, and so my practice is to never carry anything with a big brand name on it.  I'm also known for using black gaffer tape to cover up manufacturer names and model designations, but that's a personal choice.  Face facts, a D850 with a decent piece of glass is worth more than some folks earn all year.  It's in your best interest not to be a knob.

I want this kind of tilting LCD on ALL pro grade cameras.  

I want this kind of tilting LCD on ALL pro grade cameras.  

The D850 has a tilting LCD.  The LCD is beautiful with great colour and fine detail.  That it tilts is a real bonus for when one must shoot in Live View because of subject placement.  The tilt mount feels robust, and this is one of the rare ones where I am not terrified of having the whole thing snap off in my hands.  The display does not flip or swivel, so use as a vlogging monitor is not possible, nor can it be used to frame any selfies that you may be inclined to shoot in a fit of mental breakdown.

The sensor is a sort of first for Nikon.  Nikon is very upfront that they are involved in the design of their sensors but have them built elsewhere.  Unlike a lot of recent Nikon DSLRs, this sensor does not come from Sony Imaging Sensors.  Sony's sensors are superb.  So the decision not to go with Sony has made some people a bit nervous.  Frankly, I think that even with Nikon's design, a sensor from Sony would have been better, although with respect, this one is still very very good.  What a lot of folks miss, is that the processing of the images coming off the sensor is all Nikon.  It's their CPU and their code and that's why regardless of the sensor used, images off Nikon cameras, look like they came off Nikon cameras.  While there is a common misconception that a RAW file is just the RAW data off the sensor, that's not actually true.  All RAWs get some form of processing treatment, just not at the completed image levels.  And given that while the filename extension is consistent, we already know that an NEF from a D850 is a different critter than a NEF from another Nikon.  They are all NEF files, and they are all different by camera.

I really like this lens.  It's sharp, fast enough as a walk around lens and has a useful focal length range.  Though slower than the more popular 24-70, it's a LOT less expensive and far more usable.

I really like this lens.  It's sharp, fast enough as a walk around lens and has a useful focal length range.  Though slower than the more popular 24-70, it's a LOT less expensive and far more usable.

I mentioned that I had specifically asked for the 24-120/4.  For my use cases, it's a great working range, fitting in where the popularly enshrined 24-70 just cannot go.  It's reasonably sized, and while it does get longer as you zoom out, it's never unwieldy.  It has VR, and also focuses nicely closely, making it a superb all around lens.  I have found it to be very nicely sharp and to have minimal distortions, none of which are evident after the basic auto lens corrections in Lightroom.  If I need really fast glass, I would go with a prime in the f/1.4 to f/2.0 range.  I was able to borrow a Nikon 70-200/4 courtesy of my friend Lindsey Johnson and used it for some of my test shots..

Image Quality

I really notice a feel difference between the 45MP D850 and 50MP Canon 5Ds.  Regular readers know that I have a barely tolerate relationship with the 5Ds mostly because it has mirror slam that brings back the memory of my old RZ67.  Some recent buyers of the D850 have complained about image softness, but when you get to inspect the RAWs, you discover that there may have been excessive optimism about safe handheld shutter speeds, or the efficacy of vibration reduction.  Hold the camera properly and shoot with intelligence and the D850 is not going to deliver a big plate of microshake, unlike some of its competitors.

Another thing that I love about the D850, which was in the predecessor, is a low native ISO of 64.  This is a killer camera for landscapes or for studio portraits with pro level strobes and light shaping tools.  This lower ISO also helps with delivering maximum dynamic range.  My friend John G Moore shot the new D850 in Yosemite when we were there in October, and while his black and whites are always amazing, the few that he has published from the D850 are even better.

Sondra and the ColorCheckr.  RAW at ISO64 lit with SB-5000 remotely fired into a parabolic umbrella.  The fall off is due to the umbrella design, not vignetting in the 24-120.  File converted directly to JPEG with no adjustments.

Sondra and the ColorCheckr.  RAW at ISO64 lit with SB-5000 remotely fired into a parabolic umbrella.  The fall off is due to the umbrella design, not vignetting in the 24-120.  File converted directly to JPEG with no adjustments.

I always set the camera to a Neutral picture style, because these settings get baked into the embedded JPEGs that are buried in the RAWs as previews and are used on the LCD display.  I want to see as little preprocessing as possible.  Picture style settings are also loaded into the RAW metadata as processing "hints" and I would prefer to have as few hints adopted as possible.   That's my choice, you should do what works for you, but I want to see as close to what would natively fall out of the camera as possible.


In addition to the remote port that a remote control or the WR-10 uses, there is also a traditional PC sync port for old style wired flash units.  There is a Mini HDMI port to connect to a television or external video recorder.   The USB output is USB3, thank the stars, because if another camera debuted in 2017 still having the caveperson era USB2 in it, I would likely plotz.  There is a separate high impedance microphone input and a headphone jack for monitoring the audio when shooting video.

Video Capability

About the video.  I do a fair bit of video for commercial clients.  DSLRs are not my first or second choice of camera to shoot video with.  Only Canon has a decent autofocus system for video in a DSLR, and frankly, I get better results overall shooting with a Sony a7S Mark II or a dedicated pro level video camera.  That said, the D850 is not useless for video.  Accept up front that autofocus is a non-starter.  Plan on manually focusing for your clips and shoot accordingly and the images will look really nice.  The D850 can shoot in 4K UHD at up to 30fps and save the files in either MOV or MP4 formats.  There is no choice of ALL-I or IPB but I understand that the camera can push clean 4K out the HDMI port to an external recorder, as that 64GB XQD card that is so great for stills is going to choke out really fast with this level of 4K video.  You can choose whether to shoot in an FX or DX crop, but it's important to recognize that both of these are larger than the default Super 35 found in pro cameras.

Dealing With Flicker

The default room lighting in my studio is fluorescent tubes.  The D850 anti-flicker control kicks in and does a really good job of dealing with this challenge. It did not come on to indicate flicker happening with my KinoFlos, but I expect that they do something in their very pricey ballasts to address this.  Regular fluorescents trips the Flicker sensor consistently.  While I suspect that most pros already understand the issues with basic fluorescents, this is a good feature, and I am curious to see how it will fair in an all LED scenario since LEDs are diodes switching, in North America at least, at 60Hz.  I don't have such an environment and did not test this.

Remote Control - Snapbridge and Tethering

You'd best sit down.  No really, take a seat because Snapbridge actually works and no longer sucks like Galactus devouring a planet. 

The new Snapbridge UI

The new Snapbridge UI

Snapbridge actually works, and works well

Snapbridge actually works, and works well

Shortly after the D850 arrived here, Nikon released an update to Snapbridge to V2.something.  I put it back on my iPhone and after going through the still somewhat awkward two sided pairing process, connection was made by bluetooth from the camera to the phone.  That connection is enough to establish communications but as my use cases revolve solely around remote control, the anticipated rain dance to make the WiFi connection happen; did not happen.  It told me that it needed to make a WiFi connection on the phone, I tapped OK and it just did it.  Remote operation was no worse than any other remote app, and better than many.  I do not know if Nikon software engineers did this, or if they contracted it out, but the operation is smooth, reasonably quick, and the UI is very usable.  Had Nikon done this Snapbridge from the get-go, they would not have suffered the heaps of burning dog dung flung at them from far and wide.   There are minor annoyances, such as the app telling me after every remote shot that the app will not transfer RAW files or TIFFs to the smart device.  I don't want them to, given the size of the RAW files individually and also because I have no interest on trying to edit a D850 RAW file on a small screen.  Actually I have no interest in editing a D850 RAW file anywhere other than on a real computer.  The JPEG that gets embedded in every RAW file comes across right snappy and you can make an exposure judgement quickly.  Camera remote settings are quite easy and remote shooting with tap to focus is also smooth.  Snapbridge limits ISO use to ISO 100 to ISO 25600 which is a minor arrgghh, particularly when the D850 does such a nice job at ISO 64, but this is really minor kvetching considering the massive improvement.  I will say it again, Snapbridge is no longer a cinder block around Nikon's neck.  There are a couple of minor bugs left to squish, but Snapbridge is now sufficiently improved that you can use it without fear.

Tethering the D850 to Capture One Pro works a charm and you have FULL remote camera control

Tethering the D850 to Capture One Pro works a charm and you have FULL remote camera control

Tethering is a different issue.  Lightroom does not at time of writing support tethering from the D850 (although it may by the time that you read this).  While Adobe was very prompt to get support for D850 RAW files out, Nikon updated their tether SDK at the end of October and it will take Adobe a bit of time to update their tethering code.  I was able to connect to the camera via USB3 to download images using Nikon Transfer 2 in ViewNX-I and also to connect directly via USB3 to Lightroom to import images.  That solves part of the problem. Nikon's own Camera Control Pro was updated to support the D850 and works very fast with images displayed in ViewNX-i.  In this method, you get the download and a nice enough preview, but you are not loading directly to an editor, although you could set up a Watched Folder in Lightroom.  PhaseONE has just released CaptureOne Pro 11, and it worked perfectly including sending images to Capture Pilot on my tablet and smartphone.  I find this very handy when clients want to see what's happening, and I don't want them in the same room talking to the subject or otherwise getting in the way.  Capture One Pro 11 tethering beats all the others because of the integration with a great editor and proper remote camera settings control.

While not particular to the D850, Adobe really needs to fish or cut bait on tethering.  I have heard from other users that Adobe support has advised them that tethering is not their top priority.  And it should not be, I agree.  But either be in the game or get off the field.

That Flashy Thing

Given the D850's target market, there is no popup flash built into this body.  While this means that there is no minor fill built in and no way to engage optical remote flashes without an accessory, this doesn't matter to me, because I prefer radio based remotes, and if I need fill flash, I do it the proper way.  I noted earlier that Nikon had included the WR-R10 kit and the SB5000 in the demo box per my request. 

I mounted up the WR-R10 / WR-A10 wireless controller kit right away.  My practice is just to leave it mounted, because it is reasonably small, and therefore easy to misplace or lose.  Plus I always have a flash with me, and my preference is to not shoot with the flash on the camera.  Nikon's TTL flash metering is consistently good, only failing where regular TTL ambient meeting gets fooled, and the ability to control flashes mounted some distance away via radio directly from the camera is a huge time saver, and is much more professional than stringing cables or having to perform some blood sacrifice and strange dance to get infrared remote flash control to work consistently.  I have studied with Joe McNally.  I am not Joe McNally and he's the only person I have ever met that CLS bows to.  But Mr. M has moved away from CLS to the new Advanced Wireless Lighting system too.   Hmmm.

While on the subject of the connectivity kit, there is a small flat remote in the box called the WR-A10 (image above) that looks nearly identical to those other small flat remotes that worked using infrared, where "worked" is a euphemism for maybe but probably not.  I wish that Nikon had changed the design of the thing, because unlike the IR based remotes, that are generally junk, this one is RADIO based and once paired to the WR-R10 assembly works a charm, around corners and at good distance.  Very useful indeed, particularly when the camera is on a tripod and you have really slow shutter speeds in use.

Once I remembered the sequence to get the units paired and talking, remote TTL flash was a breeze.  I've included a static shot of Sondra and a large Spyder ColorCheckr (see above).  The white backdrop fooled the TTL flash metering a little bit so pushing the flash exposure compensation up +1 gave me an ideal histogram.  I've said before (in the D5 and D500 reviews) how much I like Nikon's new Advanced Wireless Lighting system and that still stands.  Yes it is pricey, but it works with great consistency, and you can control everything from the camera.  The static shots placed the SB5000 in a Manfrotto clamp on the boom of a C Stand complete, firing into a Profoto Small Silver Parabolic umbrella.  Great light.  For yucks, I changed the flash to manual exposure mode and in two tests had it dialed in for perfect exposure, so it took about the same amount of time as using TTL and flash exposure compensation.  I like the consistency and the speed of use in both modes.  Freedom of choice to the user with minimal waste of time and subject waiting.

ISO Performance

Most potential users of a high resolution camera like the D850 want to know what the digital noise looks like.  I set up my common test scenario which consists of the Datacolor Spyder ColorCheckr beside Sondra about three feet off a plain white background.  Lighting was provided by a pair of KinoFlo continuous kits.  I used a Sekonic light meter to set the meter reading for the lowest ISO and then just moved the ISO up as well as moved the shutter speed up according to the EV tables.  I only meter for the first shot, because I also want to see how consistent the exposure looks as the ISO climbs.  In a nutshell, it's perfect.

I start at the lowest native ISO that the camera supports.  In this case, it is ISO 64.  Ostensibly, this should be where I get the widest dynamic range, the most accurate colour response and the least amount of noise.  My first move from ISO 64 was 2/3 of a stop to ISO 100 along with the identical 2/3 stop reduction in shutter open time.  From then on, I moved in full stop increments in both ISO and shutter speed.  I set the aperture to f/16 and locked that in.  Shutter speeds and ISOs were adjusted manually.  I have left the EXIF in the files in the gallery should you wish to check them.

I imported the images to Capture One Pro 11 directly from the XQD card, through a Sony reader that I purchased for this test.  I could have done the USB cable thing as I mentioned earlier, but I decided that the reader would be more practical long term.  I'm going to need it anyway as companies move away from the Flintstone era SD card structure, and XQD is both fast and considerably less expensive than CFAST.

Once in Capture One Pro 11 using the default Nikon D850 RAW conversion, I used the white balance tool on the middle grey patch in the ISO 64 image to set a custom white balance.  I then copied that adjustment, and applied it to all the other images.  I did not manually set the white balance for each image.  This standardization of white balance may conceal a colour shift as ISO increases in AWB, but I think that a standard white balance is more useful for noise comparisons.  Finally the RAW variants with the white balance standardized were exported as 100% quality JPEGs with 1440 pixels on the long side.

As you'll see in the image gallery, the camera is very solid in terms of very low noise through ISO 800 and then starts to pick up but in my visual test of a full screen image viewed on a 27" display at a viewing distance of two feet, noise control is good to ISO 6400.  This is far superior to the usable ceiling on Canon's 5Ds which displays similar noise at ISO 1600.  The D850 natively goes to ISO 25600, and it's usable if you must get the image, but the shadow noise is pretty brutal by that point.  Using either Hi1.0 (51200) or Hi2.0 (102400) are interesting for testing purposes but they are unusable in a professional capacity.  This is not surprising as we know that as the individual pixel area decreases, noise increases, because ISO invariance is a pretty theory that doesn't apply in the real world, mcmarketing blather notwithstanding.

I'm very pleased with the D850 in the area of ISO performance.  I have not had opportunity to test Sony's a7r Mark III but I believe that at the higher ISOs, based solely on personal testing, Sony's a7r Mark II outperforms the D850 at ISO 12800 and higher.  I prefer the look of the Nikon images, and that has everything to do with Nikon's CPU approach to RAW creation and how it differs from Sony's approach.  This preference is completely subjective.

A good friend has indicated that his experience with D850 shows higher luminance noise at low ISOs than on either the D800 or D810.  I have a limited number of images made on those cameras, whereas for him, they have been his primary use platforms for some time.  I was not able to duplicate his results when comparing like images from the D810 to the D850.  In my own tests, I conclude that the output from the D850 is superior.  I would not say massively superior, but consistently so.

Sample Images

The weather is never my friend for review products it seems, plus as I write this it is the end of November, beginning of December, where damp, cold and grey are the operative descriptors for weeks at a time.  That said, this small set of samples will give you a feel for the D850.  All images were shot in RAW and converted and processed in Capture One Pro 11.

My Conclusions

I think you probably already know the answer.  While my personal use cases would drive me to a D5, I think that the D850 is the most widely usable professionally capable camera that Nikon makes.  There are small niggles as with any product, but this one has saved Nikon's reputation after a few questionable releases.  At $4399 MSRP CAD, it's an expensive piece of kit.  However, to the photographer who will use the capabilities, it's worth it.  It beats out all the competition that I have tested so far, and even if the Sony a7R Mark III has better high ISO performance and definitely has better video, I still expect serious photographers to go with the D850, even if they own no Nikon or Sony products now.  Canon's 5D Mark IV is a proven product, loved by Canon owners, but it's not a fair comparison because of the substantial resolution difference.  Canon's closest product is the 5Ds and it's barely on the tracks when the D850 has already left the station at speed.  I respect that the 5Ds is older, but Canon still doesn't lead with dynamic range as a core requirement in their sensors and this is where they get beat up every day after school.  Would I buy a D850?  Absolutely.  In fact we bought one for our Glasgow studio.  Should you buy one?  Obviously it depends on your use cases, but if high resolution and Nikon lens and gear support matters, this is the one.

If you've bought a D850 or are thinking about it, share your experiences and your questions in the comments section.  Folks will benefit and I can likely answer any questions that you may have.

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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.

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