The Nikon D850, initially released fall 2017, received incredibly high accolades as the first-ever camera with a DXOMark score of 100. Nikon has been somewhat of a trailblazer in the super-high-resolution DSLR market, chucking a metaphorical hand grenade in 2012 with the launch of the 36.3MP Nikon D800. And in an age where smaller mirrorless cameras are building momentum, Nikon goes in the opposite direction by releasing an even more massive camera. Interesting. It wasn’t that long ago that its predecessor, the D810, set the standard for image quality.
But, with the release of this camera, it ups that with a 45.7MP BSI sensor with the latest EXPEED 5 processor, now easily competing with medium format cameras. Nikon touts this camera as the pinnacle for full-frame DSLR quality. And, on paper, it promises incredible specifications and tons of features, making it arguably Nikons best all-round camera to date. Is this finally DSLR camera to take away the market and ongoing dominance of mirrorless cameras? It’s aimed as a competitor to Sony’s a7R Mark III, Nikon’s Z7, and Canon’s 5DS. Today, we assess the strengths, weaknesses, and address whether this camera finally puts an end to the mirrorless revolution.
What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the Nikon D850?
It features an enormous 45.7MP Back-side Illuminated CMOS sensor without an Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF), representing a 25% improvement in resolution over the predecessor. Frankly, the images this camera delivers are class-leading in resolution and resolving fine details. And it does so with spectacular color rendering. At the cameras base ISO, it provides the greatest dynamic range of any full-frame camera on the market, coming in at a class-leading 12 stops. This amount of range allows users to recover shadows from complete darkness and recover 2 stops of blown-out highlights. Overall, with this level of dynamic range and resolution, it undoubtedly competes with medium format cameras twice its price. The amount of resolution it provides gives users unparalleled flexibility for creative reframing during post-production, where details are maintained even following substantial crops. It also inherits the 180K RGB metering system from the Nikon D5, allowing the camera to achieve proper exposure nearly every time.
Nikon’s full-frame all-rounded marks a new era in the DSLR world. It’s a shame that it’s likely the last of its kind, however.
The camera’s shutter is also well dampened and creates quite a stable platform. It allows users to shoot handheld at shutter speeds of up to 1/10 second without even relying on Nikon’s lens based Vibration Reduction (VR).
The camera also features several crop modes, one of which crops the sensor in by 1.5x. When in these modes, the camera’s resolution decreases, reducing file size, but subsequently extends the reach of the attached lens. These crops are helpful if you desire more creative reframing in-camera, or want to increase the zoom of the attached lens, without physically changing lenses.
It also features various smaller options for RAW files, which range from small to large. These are excellent options for those who find it’s 45.7MP images unbearing when it comes to storage demand.
It now shoots 4K video, in full-frame, unlike the D5 and D500, which had substantial crops when shooting in this mode. Nikon has thoughtfully updated the video features and capabilities with the release of this camera. It shoots 4K Ultra HD video up to 30 fps and 1080p Full HD video up to 60 fps. Also, there are three in-camera slow-motion modes, which render 24, 25, or 30 fps videos from a 120 fps recording, though limited to 3-minute segments and the DX crop mode. The camera even offers a competitive bit rate when shooting at 4K at 120 MBps. Unlike some cameras in its class, it doesn’t suffer from any signs of overheating whatsoever, and the video quality is crisp without any artifacts or moiré. The footage from both the full-frame and super 35 DX formats are sharp, neither mode has any drawbacks on image quality.
Recording length is limited to 29 minutes and 59 seconds, the industry-standard.
It shoots 8-bit 4:2:0 internally, and 8-bit 4:2:2 via external recorder.
It features Auto ISO, helpful for automatically compensating for changes in ambient light while filming.
It has zebras, for exposure clipping indication.
It offers a flat picture profile, further improving the camera’s available dynamic range to 13 stops while also lending the footage to better post-production grading.
Low Light Performance
Low light performance has improved over the predecessor, as much as 2 stops in some situations. The camera has a native ISO from ISO 64-25,600, further expandable to 102,400. The addition of a native ISO of 64 provides a ⅓ stop improvement in noise performance over the predecessor and the ideal choice for those wanting the absolute cleanest images. It’s also helpful when shooting outdoors, where it acts similar to a neutral density filter by reducing the ambient light by ⅓ stop. Overall, this lower base ISO provides far cleaner images than the competition and provides even better gradations between exposure. In performance, users can undoubtedly expect immaculate photos up to ISO 12,800 and even at 25,600, where only minor post-production reduction is required. It’s not until 51,200 do images fall victim to color shifting and excessive noise.
It inherits the same autofocusing module from the Nikon’s flagship D5, which uses a phase-detection system with 153 points, 99 being cross-type enabled. However, like most DSLRs, the majority of these points are primarily clustered around the center of the frame. Nonetheless, the system delivers exceptional low light performance, now down to a class-leading -4 EV. It also inherits 3D-tracking and Group-area AF, allowing the camera to maintain excellent subject tracking, even when movement occurs erratically throughout the frame. Users can also customize the system’s execution to modify how quickly it responds to new subjects entering the frame, helping it overcome distractions. Overall, it tracks motion quite smoothly, and the inclusion of Face-Detect rivals Sony’s industry-leading system.
Battery performance is excellent. Nikon rates the camera at 1,840 shots per charge. For best results, disable the camera’s Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity.
Display & Viewfinder
It features a 3.2-inch tilting TFT touch-sensitive monitor with a resolution of 2.36M dots. The functionality and versatility offered here matches that of the D500 and is an excellent add on. The ability to tilt the screen removes much of the backbreaking effort typically required when composing at awkward angles. The screen is also touch enabled and sports full menu navigation, touch focus, touch shutter, and pinch to zoom in playback. Touch even works when connected to an external monitor. Outside of this, it delivers ample brightness for viewing outdoors in bright sunlight and is both sharp and offers excellent viewing angles.
It features an optical viewfinder, the largest Nikon offers to date, with an enormous 0.75x magnification and 100% coverage.
It has an illuminated top display panel, which Nikon calls the LCD, that displays critical shooting parameters and other helpful information at a glance.
It features classically designed and organized Nikon menus, which are mostly unchanged from the predecessor. Previous Nikon users will be immediately familiar with navigating this camera, and it’s quite intuitive for new users. The addition of the touchscreen LCD makes navigating the menus by touch quite natural.
It has a rate button, convenient to curate images while shooting.
Physical Layout & Ergonomics
It features a robust magnesium alloy and carbon fiber chassis, which provides excellent durability and weather resistance. As this is a pro-level Nikon camera, the ergonomics are what you’d expect. Nearly every imaginable shooting parameter is accessible by a physical dial or control on the camera’s body. And, overall, the camera is well-equipped for manual control without the need to remove the eye from the viewfinder. Its layout is almost identical to the D4 and D810. However, it features a more profound grip, providing better contouring for a secure hold.
Like the D5, it, too, has an AF joystick for immediate and responsive AF point selection.
It features backlit illuminated buttons, helpful when composing in the dark or during long exposures.
It features an impressive burst rate of 7 fps with the mechanical shutter, which is further expandable to 9 fps with the optional D5 battery and grip. These speeds beat both the Canon 5D Mark IV and Sony A7R Mark III. Alternatively, you can shoot in the DX crop mode at the cost of reduced resolution, which increases the burst rate to 9 fps. The camera also sports an impressive 200 JPEG or over 50 RAW buffer, with minor viewfinder blackout. If you prefer entirely silent shooting, you can do so using the electronic shutter at 6 fps.
It features a built-in Focus Shift mode, which automatically adjusts the focal distance of the lens for focus stacking. However, it doesn’t go so far as to combine the images in-camera for you. Nonetheless, it provides ample customization over how many photos and the preferred distance between each. And it saves significant amounts of time in doing this procedure manually.
It features a completely silent electronic shutter, removing any vibrations caused by the screen when shooting at critical shutter speeds and reduces wear over its lifespan. It even includes two silent shooting modes, the first of which offers a virtually unlimited JPEG buffer. The second unleashes a 30 fps burst rate, which crops the image area to DX and uses JPEG to allow the camera to shoot 90 shots over 3 seconds. Know, exposure, and focus are fixed following the first image, however. Nevertheless, between the various silent shooting modes offered, the camera delivers incredible flexibility in longevity and power.
It features a built-in intervalometer, which creates an 8K timelapse. With so much resolution, you have ample freedom for zooms and pans in post-production. The camera can also record 4K timelapse videos, which captures a series of images saved as a video file, helpful. Both the interval and the time settings are quite extensive for added flexibility, and the camera can also perform this silently using the electronic shutter if desired.
It features built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to pair the camera to a smartphone using Nikon’s SnapBridge app, which allows for the wireless transfer of images and remote control. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support the transferring of RAW files, however. Once connected, the camera maintains the connection automatically and can sync location or time using the phone’s GPS, though optional.
It features dual card slots, one of which is XQD and the other an SD. XQD is the newest format, which boasts impressive speeds of upwards 400 MB/sec, while the SD card, UHS-II, supports 300 MB/sec. These faster formats are paramount to maintain the camera’s fast continuous speeds and hefty buffer.
It has a microphone input. Users can also configure the microphone sensitivity using the camera’s menus.
It has a headphone input.
It features a mini HDMI connector, which is more robust than the micro HDMI typically found on cameras.
It features AF Fine-tune, which micro adjusts the attached lens to prevent front or back focusing. It does this by using the contrast-detect focus system in the Live View mode to verify accuracy.
It has focus assist tools like focus magnification and peaking, which are useful when manually focusing.
While the camera supports external recording control for recorders, these controls don’t work in 4K or the 120 fps modes.
The camera lacks 10-bit recording, a potential deal-breaker for professional filmmakers who require a better color gamut.
It breaks recordings into 4 GB chunks instead of a single continuous file.
It lacks any flag log picture profiles, like Nikon’s N-log, and you cannot further customize the three profiles in-camera.
You cannot use focusing peaking when shooting 4K, nor does the electronic stabilization work. Odd. These features only work in 1080p. However, both cannot be active simultaneously, so you’ll have to choose which is most important during filming.
It lacks any advanced video features like vectorscopes and waveforms.
When shooting 120 fps, you will experience a heavy crop unless you’re already shooting in the DX mode. And, unfortunately, the footage in this mode is quite soft. For the best quality, we recommend 1080p 60 fps.
The focusing system used in Live View and video recording is contrast-detection based only, not phase-detection. However, it does cover the entire screen, unlike the phase-detection system used in the optical viewfinder. But, even so, the focusing performance is quite slow and often hunts. Sure, it supports face-detection and subject tracking, which can follow the subject nicely. But, if the distance changes, it’s not fast, nor does it follow smoothly.
Nevertheless, it does work better than previous Nikon cameras. So, while not perfect, it’s much improved.
Note: the touchscreen, while useful, doesn’t work well for rack focusing in this mode.
Oddly, the menus don’t support navigating with the AF joystick, only the navigation ring or touch.
As this is a professional camera, it lacks a hand holding automatic modes. It also does away with any scene selection modes and effect filters.
The menu lacks any clarification as to why settings are unavailable. Instead, it presents the same generic error message, uninsightful.
It lacks a built-in panorama mode.
Considering the size of this camera, if you have small hands, you may find it slightly awkward and uncomfortable.
Considering each 14-bit uncompressed RAW images from this camera are upwards of 100 MBps, you will undoubtedly need the hardware to support offloading and reviewing such large files. If you’re using a laptop with confined storage space, beware that you will more than likely have to delete files while reviewing them. Not ideal, unless you’re willing to forgo uncompressed and use compressed lossless RAW instead.
It lacks a built-in pop-up flash.
It lacks in-body image stabilization. Thus, Nikon lenses with Vibration Reduction are the only option if you desire proper stabilization.
The SnapBridge app only functions as a remote to take photos, not videos.
The camera doesn’t support USB charging.
The camera suffers from severe rolling shutter when using the electronic shutter.
Is this a good beginner camera?
A beginner’s camera, no. This camera is for current professionals or those who are seriously working towards becoming a professional. If you are a complete beginner, consider Nikon’s D3500, D5600, D7500, Z50, or D610 cameras instead.
Is the Nikon D850 a good camera for you?
With its impressive continuous shooting speeds, large buffer, and high-resolution sensor, it makes for an excellent choice for sports, wildlife, or journalism applications. And, in many respects, it replaces the previously released D500 as Nikon’s best sports-oriented camera. However, if you need the top-most shooting speed available from Nikon, you may be better suited with the flagship D5 instead.
Should current D810, D800, or D800E users upgrade? Yes, seriously consider an upgrade. If you liked those cameras, you would love this one even more. This camera improves the autofocusing, frame rate, and video capabilities vastly over these cameras. If you’ve got the cash, an upgrade is undoubtedly a good option.
For those looking for primarily a video-centric camera, while this camera could work, it’s relatively limited in capabilities. Its most significant drawbacks come in the form of weak autofocusing performance in Live View, and missing pro-level features like vectorscopes or waveforms. If you’re primarily a videographer who wants the option of shooting high-resolution stills, there are better options at this price point. It simply doesn’t offer the same level of flexibility and capabilities as a video-centric camera.
However, for those looking for a well-rounded and versatile camera, this is the best option available from Nikon to date. It’s capable of shooting practically anything, and it makes an excellent choice for the hybrid shooter who often switches between stills and videos. The 4K footage it delivers is gorgeous, and the available DX crop provides added versatility when shooting. Sure it lacks the smooth focusing of its Canon and Sony siblings. However, it offers a strong video codec and full-sensor capture, which makes for a capable platform even though Nikon has geared the camera towards professional photographers. Overall, it’s an excellent stills camera that also delivers compelling video features and performance filmmakers appreciate. In many regards, it’s the first Nikon full-frame camera that truly keeps up with the competition when it comes to video.
In the end, it represents the culmination of all Nikon’s best improvements, burrowing both innovations and technology throughout their entire lineup into a single unified body. It produces the best image quality of any DSLR available to date. It easily is the most fully-featured SLR on the market. Nikon has delivered and packed everything they possibly can into this camera. It’s refreshing to have such capabilities in a camera that’s smaller and more accessible than the flagship D5. Undoubtedly, this is one that’s proven itself worthy and reliable enough for professional use. But, is this the camera that will ultimately take away the steam in the mirrorless market and win people back to SLRs? No. While excellent, people will continue to move towards mirrorless as they progressively improve, and that’s the inevitable future. While it delivers a compelling and highly practical feature set, it’s large size makes it more cumbersome than competing mirrorless cameras. It’s image quality, reliability, and durability are unbeaten. And while it marks a new era in the SLR market, it will likely be the last of its kind.
The Nikon D850 represents the culmination of all Nikon’s best improvements, burrowing both innovations and technology throughout their entire lineup into a single unified body. It produces the best image quality of any DSLR available to date. It easily is the most fully-featured SLR on the market. Nikon has delivered and packed everything they possibly can into this camera. Undoubtedly, this is one that’s proven itself worthy and reliable enough for professional use. And while it marks a new era in the SLR market, it will likely be the last of its kind.