2017 has seen the release of some interesting cameras, but the two that have generated the most buzz, the most traffic and the most questions are Nikon’s D850 and the Sony a7R III. They’re both rather exotic creatures, not quite as other-worldly as the D5 and a9, but hardly the sorts of cameras we’re all going to rush out and buy. So why the excitement?
Both high res models are among the fastest in their line-ups
What’s interesting about both is just how much better they are than their predecessors, despite superficially looking like subtle re-shuffles of the specifications. The give-away of this leap forward is hidden in plain sight: they may both be updates of their makers’ high-res models, but both are also promoted to being among the fastest-shooting models in their respective line-ups.
That makes them much more appealing, well-rounded cameras than their predecessors, which is perhaps why they’ve generated so much interest. And why everybody wants to know which is best…
It’s not about the mirror (or lack of it)
We ended our D850 review by calling it “the best DSLR on the market today” and summed up the Sony by saying it was “the most well-rounded mirrorless camera on the market,” but you shouldn’t take that to mean it’s simply a question of whether you prefer a mirror in your camera or not. Mainly because, when you use them, it really doesn’t make much difference.
Closer to a sports camera than anything with 46 megapixels has the right to feel
Long gone are the days when you could say ‘DSLRs are better at autofocus’ or ‘Mirrorless are smaller, and more convenient.’ No-one who’s held a Sony a7 series with a GM lens on is likely to find the words ‘small’ or ‘lightweight’ springing into their minds. Equally though, I doubt many people who’ve used an a7R III in a tight spot are going to think ‘I’d have got that shot with an SLR.’
Similarly though, the D850 is the kind of DSLR that could make mirrorless stalwarts consider changing their minds. It’s not quite D5-level good but the D850 feels closer to a sports camera than anything with 46 megapixels has the right to. All those ‘you have to imagine you’re shooting medium format’ reservations that we’ve had about previous high-res DSLRs start to evaporate. With a recent Nikon VR lens on the front, you can shoot the D850 without too much thought and it’ll simply get the job done.
It should go without saying that both cameras produce spectacular image quality. Their sensors both offer tremendous resolution and dynamic range. They’re among the best sensors we’ve ever shot with, putting them within the same realm as the Hasselblad X1D, Pentax 645Z and Fujifilm GFX 50S: company that suddenly makes both cameras seem unexpectedly good value.
Among the best sensors we’ve ever shot with
The Sony demands you shoot uncompressed Raw to get at its full capability, whereas the Nikon has some of the smartest Raw compression on the market (even its ‘lossy’ compression is essentially only throwing away spurious data), but that ends up being a question of storage and workflow, not of the photographic process itself. The pictures themselves are similarly good.
Anyone who’s shot them side-by-side won’t be at all surprised to find that DxO has given their sensors the same score: there’s virtually nothing to choose between them. Slight differences in dynamic range and high ISO performance are just that: slight. If anyone tells you that one camera is better than the other, for any particular activity based on image quality, you should laugh at them. In their face, if possible.
Verdict: no clear winner
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the a7R III is the better video camera. Its video quality is higher, its range of features and supporting tools is wider and its video autofocus, while still frustratingly inconsistent with the behavior in stills mode, is actually useable for all but the most demanding of projects. Realistically, if video is one of your primary needs, the Sony is the clear choice, even before you consider its ability to accept, via adapter, just about every dedicated cinema lens you might chance across.
However, the D850 isn’t utterly left for dead. Its video quality isn’t half bad and, so long as you have some experience of focusing and exposing video, it’s pretty adept at quickly jumping back and forth between stills and video shooting. In fact, because it retains separate exposure settings for stills and video mode, it can actually be easier to switch between the two than it is on the Sony. To match this behavior, you need to configure one or more of the Sony’s Memory Recall modes, to ensure you don’t find yourself with a card full of stop-motion-like video clips shot at your ‘freeze the action’ shutter speed.
Verdict: Sony a7R III wins
Autofocus – Action
The D850 3D Tracking performance doesn’t quite match the D5, but it’s still capable of a very impressive performance. 3D Tracking will generally do a good job of recognizing the subject you initially point it at, then track it around the scene, using whichever AF point is closest to your subject’s current position. It’ll occasionally fall off the precise point you chose, and you’re limited to the camera’s comparatively small focus sensor region, but it’ll generally do a great job and offers enough configuration options to cope even with complex action.
The Sony does a great job of keeping things in focus if you can keep the AF point over them, but its subject tracking isn’t as surefooted as the D850’s. Worse still, unlike Nikon’s system, you can’t specify which part of the subject you wish to track: the camera tries to identify the subject and then tracks all of it. This usually means focusing on whatever element is closest. Depending on your subject, that may not be good enough.
Verdict: Nikon D850 wins
Autofocus – People
Wedding photographers and just about anyone needing to shoot pictures of people will find the a7R III’s Eye AF feature is a huge advantage. Sony wasn’t the first to offer an AF mode that detects the subject’s eyes but the implementation is pretty clever: in single AF mode Face Priority will focus on your subject’s eye, but the clever stuff happens in C-AF mode. Here, you hold down a configured button and the camera focuses on your subject’s eye, regardless of what AF area mode you were in.
This means that you can compose your image without having to perfectly position your AF, knowing that hammering down the Eye AF button will all-but ensure perfectly focused images on whichever eye is nearest your AF point.
Anyone needing to shoot pictures of people will find the a7R III’s Eye AF feature a huge advantage
The above shot was achieved while holding a video camera to the a7R III’s viewfinder, waving both devices around to show the degree to which Eye AF works, and where it fails. Despite all attention being on shooting this demonstration, rather than any photos, a handful of the resultant shots proved to be of a high enough standard to include in our samples galleries. Each of them pin sharp.
The D850 has no option to find eyes in the scene and its 3D Tracking, while good, can’t be relied on to follow the subject’s eye even if you point the camera to it. Beyond this, even when working with calibrated lenses, we simply wouldn’t expect an off-center DSLR AF point to match the focus precision that the Sony will effortlessly achieve.
Verdict: Sony a7R III wins
Configuration and operation
Perhaps because the a7R III has such an extensive video and stills feature set, it absolutely demands that you spend time learning and configuring the camera. It’s a complaint we’ve regularly leveled at Olympus, over the years, and it’s just as true here. The a7R III can do so much that you really need to decide how you want to shoot, which tools you want access to, then carefully consider how to set the camera up to give easiest access to all these things. But taking this time is worth it, since there are some very powerful customization options available.
Even simple things like having a physical AF/MF switch count in the Nikon’s favor. But, while its ability to change all key functions by holding a button and turning a dial is a highly efficient and effective way of working (once you’ve become familiar with it), it’s a system that, for now, works primarily for stills. Not having things like a Log profile, much less a mode to offer a corrected preview mean there are fewer functions the Nikon needs to give quick access to.
Verdict: no clear winner
Both makers have spent the past few years going all-out to flesh-out their lens lineups. Nikon has an inherent advantage, of course, offering at least some degree of compatibility with a decades-deep back-catalog of lenses, the vast majority designed to be useful on full frame.
This advantage remains even if you limit yourself to the lenses Nikon says are well suited to the demands of 46MP, but Sony has an increasing number of the ‘essential’ bases covered. The new 24-105mm F4, for instance, seems great (though there’s a hefty price tag associated with this apparent excellence), and we’ve been impressed by the 85mm F1.8.
And, while we wouldn’t recommend buying an a7R III if you plan only to shoot with adapted lenses (tilt-shifts aside, perhaps), it’s true that the Sony can at least make use of just about any lens you care to mount on it. So while you significantly reduce the camera’s maximum shooting speed, you do at least retain functions like Eye AF.
Verdict: no clear winner
The D850 still has a slight edge in terms of operational speed over the a7R III. Sony has made great strides to remove the lags and delays from its menus and operation, but the D850 just feels like a more responsive camera. It could be a matter of perception, and I very much doubt the difference is within the realms of practical measurement, but what feels like the cumulative effect of fractions of a second here and there make me think of the D850’s operation being near-instantaneous in a way that I don’t get with the Sony.
Verdict: Nikon D850 (just)
The tiniest of margins
As we said earlier in this slideshow, you can no longer summarily decide which camera is going to be better for a given situation, based simply on whether it’s Mirrorless or a DSLR. But with these two cameras it’s near impossible to find any situation in which one definitively outshines the other.
Landscapes? the DR differences are small enough that it comes down to a question of whether the weight difference or the built-in intervalometer swings it for you. The Sony is better at video in several respects, but if video isn’t your primary concern, the D850 makes it so easy (out of the box) to jump from stills to video to stills that even that’s not going to be a decisive victory for those just shooting the odd clip.
What’s most striking about both cameras is how good they are across a range of subjects and shooting types, making them very hard to tease apart. The differences in video and in the areas of autofocus in which each excels (the Nikon for action, the Sony for pictures of people), apart there’s no clear winner. This isn’t fence-sitting on our part: they’re genuinely two of the best cameras the world has ever seen.
Overall verdict: No clear winner