Nikon D850: Evolutionary Advantage
A significant upgrade in pixel count and speed puts the Nikon D850 in the limelight for a variety of reasons. K Madhavan Pillai reports.
This article was originally published in December 2017.
Nikon veritably opened up a new category for camera companies, and restarted the pixel wars with the release of the 36.3MP D800. The D810 upped the ante, but with competitors creeping up, the D850, released last September, raises the bar yet again with a new back illuminated 45.7MP sensor, capable of 7fps (a blazing 9fps with battery grip and EN-EL18b battery).
At least until the launch of the Sony A99 II a year ago, photographers always thought of high resolution sensors as a trade off, sacrificing shooting speed. Not only does the D850 turn this logic on its head, it is a leap forward in many areas over the D810.
The sensor on the D850 is Nikon’s first BSI CMOS full frame sensor, promising better light gathering capabilities. A bump of 45.7MP over 36.4MP is 25% more in overall pixels, or about 12% more in linear resolution. The base ISO is 64 (as on the D810), for an equivalent or better than the exceptional dynamic range. Native ISO has been pushed to 25,600. On the lower side, ISO 32 is available as an expansion… useful to eliminate the use of ND filters.
The rather brilliant 153 focus points (99 cross-type) and the 181,000-pixel RGB metering sensor has been inherited from the Nikon D5 / D500. Together, they provide the D850 with AF and tracking capabilities that rank as the best available today. 15 AF points at the center are sensitive to f/8, which means that you can attach a 2x teleconverter to an f/4 lens and still be able to achieve good AF.
The new AF system also sensitive down to -4 EV at the center of the frame (two stops lower than the D810) and -3EV at the edges. The D850 loses the AF assist lamp (not so significant), and the in-built flash (more so), but it gains improved weather sealing.
In keeping with the higher continuous shooting speed, the D850 can buffer 51 14-bit (170 12-bit) lossless compressed RAWs (47 and 28 in the D810) or 200 large fine JPEGs. Battery performance has been improved to 1840 shots (a whopping 5000 plus shots with battery grip housing the EN-EL18b).
Additionally, the D850 gains UHD 4K video capture (up to 30p, 144Mbps) from the full sensor width (among the few full frame cameras that can do this), Full HD 1080p (up to 60p, 48Mbps, or 120p recorded as roughly 1/4 or 1/5th speed slow-mo at up to 30p, 36Mbps), and 4:2:2 8-bit UHD uncompressed output while recording to card. Nikon has also introduced features such as Active D-Lighting, electronic VR, and focus peaking (except during 4k or slow-mo) usable with video. It can also shoot an exceptionally useful 19.4MP DX crop, or a blazing 8.6MP at 30fps for up to 3 sec. To support its speed, Nikon has incorporated an XQD memory card along with an UHS II SD card slot. Considering that only 447 lossless compressed RAW with JPEG large images can be recorded on a 64GB media card, the D850 offers the option of using RAW Medium (25.6MP) or RAW Small (11.4MP).
There are a large number of important additions pertinent to a high resolution camera. The auto AF fine-tune feature for lens focus (from the D500 / D5) is particularly essential for a high resolution sensor. To eliminate shutter and mirror vibration, electronic front curtain shutter operations have been improved. There is now an option to shoot silently via live view. Those who are concerned about conserving the shutter (tested up to 200,000 cycles) will be happy to find the electronic shutter now also operates across various functions, including interval shooting, automatic focus shift stacking, and time lapse videos. The D850 is particularly well-suited for timelapse–4K (processed in-camera) and 8K (externally using external software), with exposure smoothening.
Landscape and macro photographers, rejoice! The D850 features auto focus shift stacking with AF lenses, with stacks up to 300 shots, and focus increments in ten steps. Exposure smoothening is available here as well. WiFi and Bluetooth options are also added, but not GPS.
The Nikon D850 is a camera that can be spoken about in as much detail (for which I will easily need every page of this issue) or, well… briefly. In terms of handling and controls, the D850 is closer to the D500 / D5 than to the D810, which is excellent. The thumb joystick, for instance, is a very welcome addition. Between the shutter half-press, AF-ON button and the joystick sub-selector center press, you can have three different, user defined AF-area modes instantly accessible. You can also customise button and dial combinations and behaviours to your requirements. The buttons on the D850 are now backlit, and are fantastic to use at night.
There are a few oddities. The Fn2 button, for example, has almost no customisation options to speak of. While the Easy exposure compensation option (using the unused input dial for quickly changing EV) helps instant access, the Easy ISO option (available in the D810) is no longer available. And of course, the SnapBridge utility to remotely access the camera, with a handheld device using Bluetooth and WiFi, is quite cumbersome and problematic. However, none of these take away from the fact that the D850 is a big step ahead in handling over its predecessor.
Just as much the D850 is meant for speedy operation and can provide sheer brilliance to a careful, practiced user, the extreme resolution can as easily show up flaws in handling, technique, and lenses. More than the D500 / D5, the D850 demands discipline in its use. Though I have steady hands, I found myself using higher shutterspeeds than usual because the slightest shake can be magnified at the pixel level. Likewise, many of the stand-out features need to be used in a certain way, and involves a learning curve and practice.
The D850 has the most fully evolved high resolution sensor yet, competing with the quality put out by medium format cameras. It belts out fine detail and does so exceptionally well, even at the higher ISO settings, although the low ISO images are where you see magic. Pixel for pixel, in terms of dynamic range and recoverable detail, I would put it a slight notch above the D810.
The D850 poses a challenge for many of Nikon’s optics, including the latest 24-70mm f/2.8E. With a sensor of this nature, the advanced user will want sharpness across the image and not just at the center. I say this with a caveat. One must realise that the size an image is printed is more relevant than viewing pixels at 100%. Besides, if you do print images at full size, with the resolution of the D850, you are going to view the image from a minimum of two feet away. Nevertheless, on pixel peeping, images shot with the 24-70mm at f/2.8 displayed visibly soft edges. Recognising this, Nikon has put out a list of lenses optically relevant to the D850, a few of which I don’t entirely agree with. In any case, the best results on this sensor comes from the optical sweet spot of lenses. This is not the only issue. The lenses used on the D850 need to focus perfectly for perfect sharpness, and this may involve using the somewhat complex AF fine tune feature.
There are subtle advances in noise performance, visible more at high ISO settings. Considering the higher resolution over the D810, this is significant. While the JPEGs and the in-camera processing are good, I found myself frequently going back to the RAWs for the additional control.
AF, of course, is a huge leap forward over its predecessor, even if the D810 is no slouch. Given the frame rates, the jump in AF speeds and tracking capabilities opens up new possibilities for many genres of photography.
Live View AF, though improved, is still slow to acquire focus by today’s standards, and this somewhat limits both videos and silent live view functionality, especially in low light levels. If there is a significant negative with the D850, it would be this. The touchscreen is beautifully responsive and adds a whole new dimension to operability in both shooting and playback.
The many features, functions, handling, and its advantages over its predecessor, come together extremely well in the Nikon D850. If you are generally looking for a high resolution option, the D850, in my opinion, should be at the top of your list. Against its closest competitors, the Sony A7R II (its update is likely coming soon), and certainly against the newer A99 II, the D850 easily comes through as a more evolved camera, especially in terms of handling, and the availability of systemic lenses and accessories. The Canon EOS 5DS R is a generation old too, and, feature for feature, lags behind.
Yet, the question must be asked… at a price of Rs. 2,34,950 (body only), who is this camera meant for? It is the instant choice for any Nikon user who has not made an investment yet. It is an excellent upgrade to the D800. For D810 users happy with their cameras, I would not recommend a switch, unless its for the incremental AF performance and speed.
For fashion, wildlife, action, sports or travel photographers who want to make huge prints or who want the advantage of being able to crop, it is the perfect choice. For macro photography enthusiasts, landscape and still life photographers who frequently stack focus, the Nikon D850 is absolutely invaluable.
45.7MP, 7 or 9fps, 4k video, auto focus stacking
Image quality, ISO performance, speed
Magnesium alloy, weather sealing, tough
Akin to the D500 / D5, customisability
|Warranty & Support
One-year warranty, wide service network
|VALUE FOR MONEY||4/5|
|Who should buy it?||Advanced level photographers in fashion, wildlife, action, sport, travel, landscape or macro, who want an evolved, speedy high resolution camera.|
|Why?||A highly capable sensor within a weather sealed body, and a marriage of very relevant features that need discipline.|