Nikon D850 Hands-on Review: First Impressions

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The Nikon D850 is Nikon’s latest high resolution full-frame DSLR, boasting a 46MP backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. But, in a fairly radical departure for the series, it is also one of the company’s fastest-shooting DSLRs. This combination of properties should significantly widen the camera’s appeal to high-end enthusiasts as well as a broad range of professional photographers.

Key Specifications:

  • 45.7MP BSI CMOS sensor
  • 7 fps continuous shooting with AE/AF (9 with battery grip and EN-EL18b battery)
  • 153-point AF system linked to 180,000-pixel metering system
  • UHD 4K video capture at up to 30p from full sensor width
  • 1080 video at up to 120p, recorded as roughly 1/4 or 1/5th speed slow-mo
  • 1 XQD slot and 1 UHS II-compliant SD slot
  • Battery life rated at 1840 shots
  • 3.2″ tilting touchscreen with 2.36M-dot (1024×768 pixel) LCD
  • Illuminated controls
  • SnapBridge full-time Bluetooth LE connection system with Wi-Fi
  • Advanced time-lapse options (including in-camera 4K video creation)

High resolution

The use of a backside illuminated (BSI) sensor means that the light collecting elements of the sensor are closer to the surface of the chip. This should not only increase the efficiency of the sensor (improving low light performance) but should also be expected to make the pixels near the edges of the sensor better able to accept light approaching with high angles of incidence, improving peripheral image quality.

Like the D810 before it, the D850 continues to offer an ISO 64 mode, that allows it to tolerate more light in bright conditions. We will be testing whether this gives the D850 the same dynamic range advantage as the D810, as soon as a production version arrives but our initial quick looks suggests it does, meaning it should be able to compete with the medium format sensors used in the likes of the Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z.

A BSI sensor with ISO 64 setting should be able to match the D810’s low ISO DR while also offering improved performance in at high ISOs.

And, while the D850 still hasn’t got an electronic first curtain option to ensure stable shooting when using the viewfinder (you need to use live view or Mirror-up mode). However, presumably thanks to a redesigned shutter and mirror mechanism, our quick check with a pre-production model suggests shutter shock may not be an issue, even without it.

The D850 has no anti-aliasing filter, which should allow for slightly finer detail capture but with added risk of moiré, if any of your lenses are sharp enough to out-resolve a 45.7MP full-frame sensor. There’s still no sign of the clever design Nikon patented so, unlike the Pentax K-1 or Sony RX1R II, you can’t engage an anti-aliasing effect if you do find false color appearing in densely patterned areas.

High Speed

In addition to the increased speed, the D850 also gains the full AF capabilities of the company’s flagship sports camera: the D5. This includes all the hardware: AF module, metering sensor and dedicated AF processor, as well as the full range of AF modes and configuration options, which should translate to comparable focus performance combined with high resolution.

Given the D5 possessed one of the best AF systems we’ve ever seen and could continue to offer that performance in a wide range of conditions and shooting scenarios with minimal need for configuration, this is an exciting prospect.

As part of this system, the D850 gains the automated system for setting an AF Fine Tune value. It only calibrates the lens based on the central AF point and for a single distance, but it’s a simple way to ensure you’re getting closer to your lenses’ full capabilities, which is handy given you’ll now be able to scrutinize their performance with 46MP of detail.

Add the optional MB-D18 battery grip and an EN-EL18b battery, and the D850 will shoot at 9 frames per second.

Impressively, the D850 can shoot at nine frames per second if you add the optional MB-D18 battery grip and buy an EN-EL18b battery, as used in the D5. As well as increasing the camera’s burst rate, this combination also ups the battery life to a staggering 5140 shots per charge. You don’t get this same boost in speed or endurance if you use a second EN-EL15a in the grip, though.

An MB-D18 plus an EN-EL18b is likely to set you back something like $550 over and above the cost of the camera body ($399 for the grip, around $149 for the battery).

The D850 also includes a sufficiently deep buffer to allow fifty-one 14-bit losslessly compressed Raw files, meaning the majority of photographers are unlikely to hit its limits.

Video capabilities

In terms of video the D850 becomes the first Nikon DSLR to capture 4K video from the full width of its sensor. The camera can shoot at 30, 25 or 24p, at a bitrate of around 144 Mbps. Our initial impression is that the video is pixel-binned, rather than being resolved then downsampled (oversampling), but we’ll be checking on this as part of the review process. This risks lowering the level of detail capture and increases the risk of moiré, though it’s a better solution than line-skipping. There also seemed to be significant rolling shutter, but again these are only first impressions from a camera running non-final firmware.

At 1080 resolution, the camera can shoot at up to 60p, with a slow-mo mode that can capture at 120 frames per second before outputting at either 25 or 24p. The 1080 mode also offers focus peaking and digital stabilization, neither of which are available for 4K shooting.

The D850’s tilting rear screen will make video shooting easier, though we doubt many will use its contrast-detection tap-to-focus system when they do.

The D850 doesn’t have any Log gamma options for high-end videographers, but it does have the ‘Flat’ Picture Profile to squeeze a little extra dynamic range into its footage, without adding too much to the complexity of grading. It also offers full Auto ISO with exposure compensation when shooting in manual exposure mode, meaning you can set your aperture value and shutter speed, and let the camera try to maintain that brightness by varying the sensitivity.

As you’d expect from a camera at this level, the D850 also includes the Power Aperture feature that allows the camera to open and close the lens iris smoothly when in live view mode. There’s also an ‘Attenuator’ mode for the camera’s audio capture, that rolls-off any loud noises to avoid unpleasant clipping sounds.

Body & Camera Features

The D850 will present no great surprises for D810 shooters: but the addition of a dedicated AF point joystick is likely to be welcome.

The D850’s body is primarily made from magnesium alloy and fairly closely resembles the D810. The newer model gains a D750-style flip up/down cradle for its rear screen, which is not only much higher in resolution but also touch sensitive. Unlike the D5 and D500, this touch sensitivity can be used in live view mode and for navigating menus, as well as for in playback mode.

The camera’s grip has been reworked, making it more comfortable than the D810 when holding the camera for long periods or with heavy lens combinations.

The most obvious visual difference between the cameras is a different viewfinder hump, with the new camera having no built-in flash. Instead, strobe users will have to make do with the flash sync socket or purchase the WR- radio control trigger set (the WR-A10, WR-R10 and WR-T10 that allow remote triggering of the camera or remote control of radio compatible flashguns such as the Speedlight SB-5000).

Nikon says that the removal of the onboard flash allows the D850 to be better weather-sealed than the D810, since there are fewer seams on the top of the camera to protect against moisture ingress.

Autofocus hardware

As with the Nikon D5, the D850 has a 153-point AF system featuring 99 cross-type points. The central AF point is rated as working in light as low as -4EV, with the rest still active at -3EV (and, since the metering sensor is meant to work down to this level too, it may still be possible to use the camera’s 3D tracking mode in these very low light conditions). Fifteen of the camera’s AF points clustered near the center of the frame will work with lens + teleconverter combinations with maximum apertures of just F8, which should make it useful for pursuits such as birding.

This Multi-Cam 20K AF system, like the D5’s, offers a good degree of frame coverage for a full frame camera: 30% wider than on the D810, the company says. The move from the D810’s 91,000-pixel metering sensor to the D5’s 180,000-pixel chip should improve subject recognition. This and the inclusion of a dedicated AF processor means the D850 should be a match for the D5, which can keep AF points on a moving subject even in continuous shooting, rather than subject tracking performance dropping noticeably during bursts, as the D810’s did.

So far as we can tell, the only significant difference between the D850’s AF system and the D5’s is the viewfinder display. The D5 has an organic electro-luminescent display layer that allows it to light the active AF points as they change in 3D tracking mode, the D850 has an LCD layer on which the points only light up when they’re manually moved or when focus is initiated or acquired.

Viewfinder

The removal of the camera’s built-in flash frees up room for a new viewfinder, so magnification is able to leap from 0.7x to 0.75x which is the largest optical viewfinder on any Nikon DSLR. The larger finder, which features a new condenser lens and an aspherical element in the design, retains a reasonable (17mm) eye point, we’re told, so the whole scene should be visible even for most glasses wearers.

Additional Features

Time-lapse

As with previous Nikon cameras, the D850 has intervalometer functions built in, so that you can capture time lapses without any external accessories. This feature can be combined with the camera’s silent shutter live view mode, to avoid vibration or excessive wear on the mechanical shutter, though with the risk of rolling shutter.

The camera can either assemble the images together in a 4K video or retain the full resolution files, to allow you to create a full resolution time-lapse in third-party software. Nikon uses the camera’s high resolution to brand this second capability as “8K Timelapse,” since the images exceed the 7680 × 4320 dimension of that video format.

Like previous Nikons, the intervalometer lets you specify the number of shots and the delay between them but now adds the ability to create a new folder and reset the file numbering for each time lapse sequence, so that the files can easily be isolated and transferred to 3rd-party software.

Focus shift

The D850 can also use this ‘new folder and reset the counter’ approach for another of its features. The Focus Shift mode prompts the camera to shoot a series of photos at different focus distances. You can specify the number of images, the size of the distance steps and whether there’s a delay between each shot. Unlike the similar feature on Olympus and Panasonic cameras, the Nikon can’t combine the resultant images, but it can place them in a separate folder to make it easy to import them into 3rd-party focus stacking software.

We’re told the focus steps will be selected on a dimensionless 0-10 scale, presumably because the distance of the increments will vary depending on the type of lens you use.

SnapBridge

The D850 includes Nikon’s SnapBridge connectivity system. This establishes a full-time Bluetooth LE connection between the camera and compatible smart devices. This is a step forward from the D810, which had no built-in wireless options, however, we have not found the SnapBridge system to be a good match for high-end systems in the past.

The D850 does have Wi-Fi but it’s only accessible through the Bluetooth-led smartphone app, the current version of which offers a fairly simplistic feature set.

Existing implementations of SnapBridge lean very heavily towards using the Bluetooth connection to transfer images (unlike Samsung and Canon’s approaches, which use it just to keep lines of communication open, so that Wi-Fi communication can be established more rapidly). The camera can transfer every image it shoots automatically either at 2MP or in full resolution, but only over Bluetooth. Select the images on the camera and those will be sent (slowly) over Bluetooth, too. The only way of accessing Wi-Fi and its greater transfer speed is to use the app to browse your memory card and select from there.

Without a significant reworking of the SnapBridge app, we are concerned that the combination of a high-speed 46MP camera and a primarily Bluetooth-based connection with no ability to send Raw files will be inappropriate for the typical D850 user.

Specifications

Price
MSRP $3299
Body type
Body type Mid-size SLR
Body material Magnesium alloy
Sensor
Max resolution 8256 x 5504
Image ratio w:h 1:1, 5:4, 3:2, 16:9
Effective pixels 46 megapixels
Sensor photo detectors 47 megapixels
Sensor size Full frame (35.9 x 23.9 mm)
Sensor type BSI-CMOS
Processor Expeed 5
Color space sRGB, Adobe RGB
Color filter array Primary color filter
Image
ISO Auto, 64-25600 (expands to 32-102400)
Boosted ISO (minimum) 32
Boosted ISO (maximum) 102400
White balance presets 14
Custom white balance Yes (6 slots)
Image stabilization No
Uncompressed format RAW + TIFF
JPEG quality levels Fine, normal, basic
File format
  • JPEG (Exif v2.3)
  • TIFF (RGB)
  • Raw (Nikon NEF, 12 or 14 bit, lossless compressed, compressed or uncompressed)
Optics & Focus
Autofocus
  • Contrast Detect (sensor)
  • Phase Detect
  • Multi-area
  • Center
  • Selective single-point
  • Tracking
  • Single
  • Continuous
  • Touch
  • Face Detection
  • Live View
Autofocus assist lamp No
Manual focus Yes
Number of focus points 151
Lens mount Nikon F
Focal length multiplier 1×
Screen / viewfinder
Articulated LCD Tilting
Screen size 3.2
Screen dots 2,359,000
Touch screen Yes
Screen type TFT LCD
Live view Yes
Viewfinder type Optical (pentaprism)
Viewfinder coverage 100%
Viewfinder magnification 0.75×
Photography features
Minimum shutter speed 30 sec
Maximum shutter speed 1/8000 sec
Exposure modes
  • Program
  • Aperture priority
  • Shutter priority
  • Manual
Built-in flash No
External flash Yes (via hot shoe or flash sync port)
Flash modes Front-curtain sync (normal), Rear-curtain sync, Red-eye reduction, Red-eye reduction with slow sync, Slow sync
Flash X sync speed 1/250 sec
Drive modes
  • Single-frame
  • Self-timer
  • Quiet shutter
  • Quiet continuous
  • Mirror-up
  • Continuous low
  • Continuous high
Continuous drive 9.0 fps
Self-timer Yes (2, 5, 10, 20 secs)
Metering modes
  • Multi
  • Center-weighted
  • Highlight-weighted
  • Spot
Exposure compensation ±5 (at 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV, 1 EV steps)
AE Bracketing ±5 (2, 3, 5, 7 frames at 1/3 EV, 1/2 EV, 2/3 EV, 1 EV steps)
WB Bracketing Yes (2-9 exposures in 1, 2, or 3EV increments)
Videography features
Format MPEG-4
Modes
  • 3840 x 2160 @ 30p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 3840 x 2160 @ 25p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 3840 x 2160 @ 24p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1920 x 1080 @ 120p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1920 x 1080 @ 60p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1920 x 1080 @ 50p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1920 x 1080 @ 30p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1920 x 1080 @ 25p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1920 x 1080 @ 24p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1280 x 720 @ 60p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
  • 1280 x 720 @ 50p, MOV, H.264, Linear PCM
Microphone Stereo
Speaker Mono
Storage
Storage types SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II supported) + XQD
Connectivity
USB USB 3.0 (5 GBit/sec)
HDMI Yes (mini HDMI)
Microphone port Yes
Headphone port Yes
Wireless Built-In
Wireless notes 802.11b/g + NFC + Bluetooth 4.1 LE
Remote control Yes (wired, wireless, smartphone)
Physical
Environmentally sealed Yes
Battery Battery Pack
Battery description EN-EL15a lithium-ion battery & charger
Battery Life (CIPA) 1840
Weight (inc. batteries) 1015 g (2.24 lb / 35.80 oz)
Dimensions 146 x 124 x 79 mm (5.75 x 4.88 x 3.11)
Other features
Orientation sensor Yes
Timelapse recording Yes (4K or 8K movies)
GPS None

We were lucky enough to get a chance to handle the D850 and shoot a couple of quick test shots, though it was a pre-production camera, so we haven’t been able to conduct a full and detailed analysis of these images.

Based on these experiences, we’re very impressed with the camera (as really should be the case when one of the big camera makers updates one of its most expensive, most ambitious models). From the specs alone, the camera promises something like the image quality of the Fujifilm GFX 50S with something like the autofocus performance of the Nikon D5. That’s a big deal.

…it could really be a camera for all disciplines

The Sony a99 II showed it was possible to offer high resolution images and fast shooting, but the D850 takes this a step further. There are some ‘ifs,’ of course, but if the sensor can offer the low ISO image quality of the D810 combined with the AF of the D5 at between seven and nine frames per second, then it could really be a camera for all disciplines, from high res studio work to street fashion, weddings, sports, landscapes…

Whether it lives up to this promise will come down to the implementation, and it’s what we’ve experienced of this, hands-on, that leaves us impressed. For a start, it seems that a revised shutter and mirror mechanism has resolved the shock issues the D810 exhibited with longer lenses. This is a critical improvement for such a high resolution camera and one that isn’t directly covered in the specs, but our quick shots suggest it’s done the job.

We weren’t able to examine the camera’s high ISO performance, but a quick check at base ISO suggests the ISO 64 mode does offer a DR advantage over ISO 100, which is what allowed the D810 to match the dynamic range performance of the GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z. We’ve also not had a chance to check the shadows, so this is a very preliminary impression, but ISO 64 does seem to be a ‘real’ sensitivity setting (i.e., not just ISO 100, but clipping earlier).

We’re less excited about the D850’s video specification. Again, these impressions are based on brief use of a pre-production camera, but it seems extremely unlikely that Nikon is going to find a way to significantly change the sensor readout or processing speed to improve the rolling shutter we observed during our time with the camera. The footage itself looks like it’s pixel-binned. This means that we don’t expect the same level of fine detail as oversampled footage (where the information from all the pixels is demosaiced and then downscaled to 4K resolution), but on the plus side, it is less prone to moiré and should be better in low light than footage created by line skipping.

We’re less excited about the D850’s
video specification

Although we have our concerns about the level of rolling shutter we saw and the continued lack of focus peaking for manual focusing in 4K mode, it’s worth putting this in perspective. Canon’s 5D Mark IV, the latest camera in what was once the go-to DSLR series for film makers, also exhibits significant rolling shutter despite also being subject to a significant crop. By comparison, The D850 offers the full (horizontal) field of view of its sensor, which is likely to make it a much easier camera to shoot with. Either way, we suspect there will be a lot of photographers from a broad range of disciplines who simply won’t care, or will find the results more than good enough given the camera’s other capabilities.

Then there’s SnapBridge. It’s a primarily Bluetooth-based communication system that works very well for sending Facebook-sized images to a smartphone on the beginner-friendly D3400 but, we felt, made considerably less sense on the enthusiast-targeted, high frame rate D500. Without a fairly fundamental rethink, this criticism is going to be even more pressing on the high frame rate and high resolution D850.

SnapBridge’s Wi-Fi simply can’t be used for many of the things you might now reasonably expect

Since Wi-Fi is only accessible via the app and can only be used to pull images from the camera, we’re not even sure it’s fair to describe the camera as offering Wi-Fi: it simply can’t be used for many of the things you might now reasonably expect. There’s no way to connect to a home network, no means to transfer Raw and not even a way to auto transfer images over Wi-Fi, rather than Bluetooth. It’s perhaps telling that when we spoke to them, Nikon’s representatives highlighted that the D850 is compatible with the expensive WT-7A connectivity module: i.e., ‘if you need a solid connectivity solution, we have an accessory for that’.

Of course, other questions remain to be answered: even when lenses have been calibrated with Automated AF Fine Tune, will the camera be able to focus consistently enough to withstand scrutiny at 45.7MP? The D5’s autofocus performance is excellent, but 20-46MP is a big jump and until we see a testable D850 there’s no way of checking the results in such high detail. You can be assured it’s one of the first things we’ll check when a production-spec camera arrives.

(dpreview.com, https://goo.gl/m8x9TV)

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