On Trial – Nikon D850
NIKON D850 With the competition from pro-level mirrorless cameras hotting up, Nikon has responded with a D-SLR which delivers both speed and resolution, but is it enough?
The mirrorless advance into the professional sector is relentless, but Nikon is giving the D-SLR a fighting chance. The D850 delivers both high resolution and high speed… and is arguably the best D-SLR the brand has ever built. Happy 100th birthday!
IT’S SAFE TO ASSUME that many photographers reaching the point of updating their camera bodies are considering the pros and cons of mirrorless-versus-reflex. The question of replacing a lens system aside for the moment (although it’s obviously a very important consideration), the mirrorless offerings are becoming steadily more seductive… Sony A9 and A7R III, Panasonic Lumix G9 and GH5, Olympus Om-D E-m1 mark II and not forgetting the medium format Fujifilm GFX 50S and Hasselblad X1D. All, in one way or another, are pushing the boundaries of speed, resolution and size to give combinations that are hard to match in a D-SLR. However, Nikon is going to give it a try… and, in the process, throw the D-SLR a lifeline.
So, how about the D850? It’s around the same size as the ‘APS-C’ format D500, but has a full-35mm size sensor that packs just under 47 megapixels and it’s capable of shooting at up to 9.0 fps. OK, so this speed is only possible with an optional battery grip which adds both bulk and cost, but even in standard trim, the D850 does 7.0 fps. This is a bit slower than the A7R III (which is also slightly lower res), but it’s pretty good for a D-SLR which is delivering an image size of 8256x5504 pixels. Until now, the combination of high resolution and high speed – in any type of digital camera – were mutually exclusive. With the big, bulky and more expensive D5 previously Nikon’s speed king (it’s still faster at 12 fps), but consequently a more specialised piece of equipment, the D850 looks like the new future in high-end D-SLRs, particularly, ironically, if Nikon has a comparable full-35mm mirrorless camera on the way.
In terms of styling and design, the D850 is very similar to the D500, but with a reshaped pentaprism housing and nameplate. As far as size is concerned, the bodyshell is a little deeper, but the other dimensions are virtually the same. Weight wise, the D850 is 90 grams heavier than the D500, presumably mostly accounted for by the bigger viewfinder pentaprism and reflex mirror required by the larger sensor. The extra body depth benefits the handgrip, but makes the D850 look a lot bigger than it actually is… park it alongside the D500 and there really isn’t much in it at all.
There isn’t much difference in the two external control layouts either – including back-illuminated buttons, focus point joystick, a tilt-adjustable monitor screen with touch controls, dual memory card slots for SD and XQD, and the absence of a pop-up flash. What this does mean, however, is a few differences compared to the D810 although nothing major and nothing that will make the transition to the D850 anything more than a minor re-adjustment. The monitor’s tilt range – 90 degrees both up and down – is a plus, as is the extensive implementation of touch controls (incidentally, well beyond that of either the D500 or D5) and the joystick-type ‘sub-selector’ which has become more essential as autofocusing systems gain point counts beyond 100. However, the deleted built-in flash probably won’t be missed by too many users.
The main body covers are magnesium alloy with a monocoque carbonfibre chassis and full sealing against dust and moisture.
The build quality in the same ruggedness league as that of the D500 and D5. This is probably the main reason the built-in flash has been deleted, although it’s doubtful the D810’s has been getting much use.
Perhaps to make the point, the D850 has the largest optical viewfinder used in a Nikon D-SLR to date, with magnification stepping up to 0.75x and an eyepoint of 17 millimetres. Coverage is 100 percent, both horizontally and vertically. As noted earlier, it uses a proper optical glass pentaprism so it’s brilliantly bright and very, very comfortable to use.
The Numbers Up
The big deal on the inside is, of course, the sensor, which is a Nikon-designed, full-35mm back-side illuminated (BSI) CmOS device with an imaging area of 35.9x23.9 millimetres. Nikon is emphasising its involvement in the design of this sensor – its first BSI-type device – but fabrication is almost certainly by Sony which holds the patents to the BSI architecture.
The BSI design frees up space on the sensor’s surface for bigger photodiodes which becomes more important when the effective pixel count is still a hefty 45.7 million, giving a pixel size that’s a reasonable – in terms of signal-to-noise ratio – 4.35 microns. Consequently, the D850’s sensor maintains a base sensitivity range equivalent to ISO 64 to 25,600. Expansion is available down
to ISO 32 and up to ISO 102,400. There is no optical low-pass filter (OPLF) which further optimises resolution.
The number-crunching is performed by a dedicated version of Nikon’s current-generation ‘Expeed 5’ processor which enables up to 7.0 fps continuous shooting at the full resolution of 45.7 mP, making the D850 the fastest of the ultra-high res D-SLRs. And it’ll capture a burst of up to 51 14-bit uncompressed RAW files – at around 52 mB a pop – or up to 200 best-quality JPEGs.
As noted earlier, when the new mB-D18 accessory battery grip is attached with an EN-EL18a/b battery pack installed (the camera is supplied with the EN-EL15a), the shooting speed increases to 9.0 fps. The more powerful processor also allows for 4K video recording – in the Ultra HD resolution – at either 24 fps or 25 fps (PAL standard) plus time-lapse sequences at 8K. Nikon has significantly increased the D850’s appeal to video-makers so, in addition to full-width 4K recording at 16:9, it has a focus peaking display, zebra patterns, 4K/2K HDmI output (8-bit 4:2:2 colour, and with simultaneous internal recording), both an audio input and output, electronic image stabilisation, and a range of slow-motion speeds for Full HD recording (for more about the camera’s video capabilities see the making movies panel).
Still images can be captured as JPEGs, TIFFs or RAW files in a variety of configurations – either 12-bit or 14-bit RGB colour and with lossless compression, lossy compression or uncompressed. The maximum image size is 8256x5504 pixels, but both JPEGs and RAWs can be recorded in medium and small sizes. Additionally, there’s a choice of formats – namely 1:2 (30x20 mm image area), 5:4 (30x24 mm), 1:1 (24x24 mm) and ‘DX’ (Nikon’s designation for the ‘APS-C’ sensor size) which can be set to automatically select when a DX Nikkor lens is fitted. JPEGs are captured at one of three compression levels – fine (at a 1:4 ratio), normal (1:8) or basic (1:16) – and there’s a host of RAW+JPEG options.
Additionally, the JPEG compression can be set to optimise image quality or to give the smallest possible file size.
We’re still not convinced of the wisdom of offering two memory card slots in different formats because it somewhat diminishes the advantages when it comes to any of the file management modes – overflow, backup or a RAW/JPEG split. In any of these scenarios you’ll end up with files spread across two cards of different formats which really doesn’t make much sense – especially in logistical terms (two readers, etc.). If you’re a non-pro user, probably the best option is buy one XQD card and then leave it in the camera as ‘on-board memory’ (for whatever purpose) and do everything else with SDHD or SDXC types, including copying back in-camera any overflow or back-up files.
The in-camera processing for JPEGs includes most of the same functions as are provided on the D5 and D500, but with a few tweaks here and there. So, for example, the selection of ‘Picture Control’ presets is increased to eight with the addition of an Auto setting which adjusts the various parameters according to scene analysis based on data from the autofocus and metering. In this regard, Nikon says its ‘Advanced Scene Recognition System’ is now even smarter.
The video-orientated Flat preset (to give an extended dynamic range) is also on the menu, plus the standard offerings of Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape – with the option of creating up to nine customised versions. For the colour presets, the adjustable parameters are for sharpening, clarity, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. The Monochrome ‘Picture Control’ replaces the colour adjustments with a set of contrast filters and a choice of nine toning effects at various densities. There are no built-in special effects, but no surprise there.
All the standard Nikon corrective measures are available - ‘Active D-Lighting’ (ADL) processing to expand the dynamic range, noise processing for long exposures and high ISO settings, lens aberrations (vignetting and distortion) and dual-shot HDR capture with either manual or automatic exposure adjustment and edge smoothing. Auto bracketing is available for exposure, flash, exposure and flash, white balance or ADL with sequences.
New is a focus shift function which can capture up to 300 frames, adjusting the focus in each via a predetermined step, varying in size from one (narrow) to ten (wide). These frames can then be assembled post-camera for focus stacking. Within focus shift it’s possible to vary the interval time between shots, employ exposure smoothing or engage silent shooting.
The D850 has both a multiple exposure facility (up to ten shots with various exposure corrections) and an intervalometer which can record up to 9999 frames in a time-lapse sequence. The self-timer is programmable for the delay countdown, number of shots and interval time.
With autofocusing performance now a key battleground in the contest between reflex and mirrorless cameras, Nikon has equipped the D850 with the very best it can do right now – the 153zone ‘Advanced Multi-CAM 20K’ phasedifference detection module which is used in both the D5 and D500. It obviously matches the former in terms of frame coverage, but this is still both wide and deep enough to catch a great many subjects.
Ninety-nine of the measuring points are cross-type arrays and 55 (of which 35 are cross-type arrays) are manually selectable. Overall sensitivity extends down to -3.0 EV, but the central AF point will keep working down to -4.0 EV. Fifteen focus points (nine of them manually selectable) can operate with a maximum aperture as slow as f8.0 – mainly to cover using telephotos equipped with teleconverters – and all 153 operate with lenses as slow as f5.6.
There’s no fewer than eight AF area modes, starting with Single-Point AF and extending to various applications of multiple points including ‘Dynamic Area’ which can be set to nine, 25, 72 or 153 points; ‘Group Area’ which selects a point and then uses a surrounding cluster of points for fine-tuning; ‘3D Tracking’ which employs colour
information to follow a moving subject, and ‘Auto Area’ which matches the subject’s size and, logically, also employs face detection.
Tracking of a moving subject can be fine-tuned via a ‘Lock On’ function which is accessed in the Custom Menu and can be set to better match the way it’s moving (using a scale marked from Steady to Erratic) and the response to an interruption caused by a blocked shot (from Quick to Delayed). Fine-tuning is available to calibrate the focusing characteristics of individual lenses (up to 20) and it’s performed automatically, although the set-up is still quite involved. Nevertheless, it’s worth doing to make sure the focusing is spot-on, especially with such a high-res sensor.
Autofocusing in live view is via contrast detection measurements using the imaging sensor with fullframe coverage and the convenience of a ‘Touch AF’ function which – as on the D500 – selects the focusing point, focuses and, if desired, also automatically triggers the shutter. The choice of area modes in live is Pinpoint, Normal Area, Wide Area, Face Priority and Subject Tracking. The live view image can be magnified up to 16x and, finally, a focusing peaking display (with a choice of four colours and three density levels) is available to assist with manual focusing.
Additionally, the D850 has the D5’s ‘Silent Live View’ shooting modes which allow for continuous JPEG/ large/fine capture at 6.0 fps for ‘DX’ format capture at 3600x2400 pixels (8.64 MP) and either 15 or 30 fps for a maximum duration of three seconds. For many applications, 8.6 MP is going to be sufficient image quality – as we’ve seen with Panasonic’s ‘4K Photo’ modes which SLV essentially replicates – giving sports photographers, in particular, some extra firepower for dealing with super-fast subjects.
Also available in live view is a ‘Split-Screen Display Zoom’ which shows two magnified parallel sections of an image side-by-side in the monitor screen – accompanied by a navigation pane showing where they’re located – with the primary objective of achieving a precisely symmetrical perspective with architectural subjects.
Reward For Effort
Exposure control is based on the 181,000 pixels version of Nikon’s RGB ‘ 3D Colour Matrix III’ metering with the choice of multi- zone, centre- weighted average, highlight weighted and spot measurements.
The spot meter has a 4.0 mm diameter measuring zone (representing just 1.5 percent of the frame area) which can be linked to the active focusing point. The size of the centreweighted meter’s central zone is variable – with 12.0 mm as the default setting – and the options being 8.0 mm, 15 mm or 20 mm. Metering sensitivity extends down to - 3.0 EV at ISO 100.
The auto exposure control modes are backed by an AE lock, up to +/- 5.0 EV of compensation and, of course, auto bracketing.
The D850’s focal plane shutter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 second with flash sync up to 1/250 second. It’s rated at 200,000 cycles. Incidentally, talking about flash control, curiously the camera doesn’t have built- in support for Nikon’s RF- based ‘Advanced Wireless Lighting’ ( AWL) system so the optional radio transceiver unit is needed to work with the SB- 5000 series Speedlights.
Like the D5 and D500, the D850 also has a hybrid sensor- based shutter which is referred to as an “electronic first curtain shutter” and is available in the camera’s quiet shooting modes and when the mirror is locked up. Eliminating the physical operation of the FP shutter’s first set of blades, the sensor shutter is not only quieter, but generates less vibration.
With ‘ Silent Live View’ shooting, shutter operations are entirely sensorbased – so it is indeed totally silent – and this is also available when creating time- lapse sequences ( but rolling shutter distortion is potentially an issue with moving subjects or moving elements within a scene).
Movement of any sort becomes more of an issue as the pixel density increases so, as on Canon’s 50 MP EOS 5DS models, there is an exposure delay timer which enables the vibrations – created by the mirror flipping up – to decay before the shutter opens. The setting range is 0.2 to 3.0 seconds.
Additional precautions will be required especially when shooting hand-held, including opting for a faster shutter speed and using image stabilisation if it’s available. Otherwise, a tripod is essential.
Put simply, if you want to make the most of the 45.7 MP resolution, you will need to put in a bit more effort. Needless to note, Nikon has also had work hard on the reflex mirror and focal plane shutter mechanisms to minimise their effects, but with longer lenses, mirror lock-up and the sensor shutter are still going to be needed. Similarly, only certain lenses are up to the job in terms of their optical resolution and this essentially only means what Nikon calls its ‘Gold Ring Nikkors’. It’s something that needs to be considered by prospective purchasers, as many older Nikkor lenses may not cut the mustard here.
For white balance control, the D850 offers a choice of three auto correction modes called ‘keep White’, ‘Normal’ and ‘keep Warm’. ‘keep White’ is designed to give white whites in situations where there are different types of lighting, both natural and artificial. ‘keep Warm’ maintains a warmer look, particularly when shooting under incandescent lighting. All three operate over a range of 3500 to 8000 degrees kelvin. Alternatively, there’s a selection of 12 presets (seven for different types of gas-ignition lighting), provisions for storing up to six custom settings, fine-tuning, manual colour temperature control over a range of 2500 to 10,000 degrees kelvin, and auto bracketing.
Located below is a lock-set selector for the drive modes which include the self-timer, mirror lock-up and the two ‘quiet’ release options (i.e. single-shot and continuous). A dedicated ISO button is positioned behind the shutter release so all the key capture-related functions are directly accessible. The customisable controls now extend to the ‘Fn1’, ‘Fn2’, preview (‘PV’), bracketing (‘BkT’), AF-On and video start/stop buttons (plus the lens-based ‘L-Fn’ button if available, and they can be assigned from lists of mostly more than 20 settings, working either solo or in conjunction with the front and rear input wheels. Additionally, the navigator’s central button can be set to a variety of roles relating the focus points, and the operations of the input wheels can be varied. The joystick control – Nikon calls it the “sub-selector” – is also customisable with its press-in action serving as the AE lock (there’s no dedicated button for this). Alarmingly, the manual warns, “Be careful not to put your fingers or fingernails into your eye when using the sub-selector”.
The big plus on the D850 is the availability of full touch control capabilities for the menus, including the customisable ‘My Menu’ and the ‘Custom Settings Banks’ (four userpopulated menus for different camera set-ups). A little disappointingly, the main information display in the monitor screen doesn’t allow for touch control, although the Custom Settings Banks are accessible by tapping on the ‘iSet’ tile – which is handy if you want to do a quick on-the-run change of set-up.
In addition to the touch AF and shutter release operations in live view,
there’s also the ‘Spot White Balance’ function which was introduced on the D5. This creates a custom WB preset from a selected point on the subject.
The live view screen can be configured with basic capture settings, a real-time histogram, a dual-axis ‘Virtual Horizon’ level display or a 4x4 guide grid. The display options for the viewfinder are the AF points and area brackets (the selectable points shown as small squares, the rest represented merely as dots), dual-axis level indicators, the grid guide and an info panel which mostly shows exposure-related settings.
The review/replay options include pages of four, nine or 72 thumbnails; zooming up to 32x and a slide show with adjustable frame intervals.
Individual images can be displayed full-frame with or without basic capture info or as thumbnails accompanied by either a brightness histogram alone, a full set of RGB histograms or a brightness warning (with the option of cycling through the individual RGB colour channels).
The autofocus point(s) used to take the shot can also be shown with the AF area brackets also provided for reference. Additionally, you can cycle through various pages of capture data which are shown superimposed over the image. A selection of in-camera editing functions are available via the ‘Retouch Menu’ and these include ‘D-Lighting’ (for dealing with contrast issues post-capture), distortion, perspective, straighten, image overlay, two basic filter effects (namely warm and skylight), B&W conversion and RAW-to-JPEG conversion. There’s also a ‘Side-by-Side Comparison’ display which allows for a retouched image to be compared directly with the original.
Speed And Performance
Loaded with our reference 128 GB Lexar Professional SDXC UHS-II/U3 (Speed Class 3) ‘2000x’ memory card, the D850 captured a sequence of 93 JPEG/large/ fine (quality priority) frames in 12.868 seconds which represents a shooting speed of 7.23 fps. Fairly impressive, given each of these frames was typically 25 MB in file size.
At 7.0 fps – with 9.0 fps on offer if you’re prepared to pay (quite a bit) extra for it – the D850 is the fastest ultra-high-res full-35mm format camera on the market; none of its rivals being capable of beyond 5.0 fps. This makes it a very versatile machine with the
added options of shooting in the ‘APSC’ format – still at 19.5 MP resolution, by the way – for a ‘free’ 1.5x increase in lens focal length, and the increased live view capabilities, most notably 30 fps shooting at 8.6 MP (not to forget silent operation). The autofocusing performance – which initially amazed us in the D5 and was re-enforced by the D500 – is again exceptional, particularly in terms of the responsiveness and speed. But the real key to this performance is the way the subject data is processed in order to assign the right focusing point or group of points, even if the main subject is off to the edge of the frame and comparatively small. It’s unerringly accurate every time. Likewise, the focus tracking also works reliably even with small subjects travelling at high speeds. Responsiveness and reliability remain excellent even in low light situations. True, we now have Sony’s A9 with its exceptional AF performance, but Nikon is keeping its top-end D-SLRs firmly in the race, particularly their highspeed credentials.
But the D850’s main party trick is undoubtedly its image quality which is markedly better than that of either the D5 or D500 – neither particularly lacking here – and an improvement on the alreadyexcellent D810. What’s immediately noticeable is the increased definition which results in sumptuously detailed images, the tiniest of elements rendered with flawless crispness. Of course, to get here, you have to be meticulous with both focusing (which is where the focus peaking display helps enormously) and the management of camera movement sources, both external and internal. It’s worth it though, as the rewards are great and, interestingly, we had much more success when using the D850 hand-held – albeit sticking with faster shutter speeds and using the delay timer – than we did with the Canon EOS 5DS.
Moiré doesn’t appear to be a problem, probably because the ultra-high frequency of the sensor’s pixel pitch is rarely exceeded by those of any visual patterns. Colour reproduction is very accurate across the spectrum with very smooth tonal gradations. Increasing the saturation via the Vivid ‘Picture Control’ enhances the richness without compromising gradations or details. Perhaps not surprisingly given the comparative pixel sizes, the dynamic range is pretty much the same as that of the D810 and the handling of contrasty situations does benefit from the application of ADL processing, especially in terms of preserving more detailing in the brighter highlights.
The high ISO performance is superlative across the native sensitivity range with excellent detailing, colour reproduction and contrast maintained all the way up to ISO 6400 and there’s then only a small drop-off in the overall image quality up to ISO 25,600. However, some noise is evident in the shadows at these higher sensitivity settings, but because of the small pixel size it doesn’t have so much of an effect on the detailing and the images remain quite useable (especially with the application of post-camera noise reduction). Things start to deteriorate quite markedly with the expansion settings which are really little more than window dressing (of course, Nikon isn’t alone here), but overall the D850 is a superior low light performer to its predecessor and its ultra-high-res rivals.
The practical implication here is that there is much more room to move with ISO settings when needing to maintain a faster shutter speed and still use an aperture that gives sufficient depth-of-field.
If the D5 and the D500 got together for a steamy night of wild passion, the outcome would be the D850 with, as is often the case in these matters, the offspring being more accomplished than either of its parents.
By virtue of its combination of resolution and speed, it’s the more capable all-rounder even before adding the better implemented touchscreen controls, enhanced live view functionality and new features such as focus shift, the focus peaking display and a bigger viewfinder. Then throw in the attributes inherited from one or other of the D5 and D500, such as the autofocusing and metering, build quality and ruggedness, tiltable monitor screen and back-illuminated keys; and the D850 adds up to be a truly formidable machine.
All this is topped off by its massive performance and the flexibility inherent with 45.7 megapixels which Nikon leverages rather more effectively than its rivals. This camera just offers so much potential that the price is pretty academic, but it’s probably no accident that it’s just little less than that other great ILC powerhouse of the moment, Sony’s A9. In truth, the two aren’t really direct competitors because the Sony is mainly about speed and so lacks the D850’s inherent versatility as both a sports and studio camera. The A7R III is the obvious rival, but it’s the D-SLR world that’s going to be comprehensively conquered by the D850… right now, nothing else comes even close.
It might look a bit bigger in illustrations, but the D850 is pretty close to the D500 in size. Bodyshell comprises magnesium alloy covers with full weather sealing.
Rear panel control layout is centred around the navigator keypad. The info page in the monitor is only for display purposes and has no active control capabilities.
Monitor screen is adjustable for tilt and offers the most extensive touchscreen controllability so far offered on a Nikon D-SLR.
Top-deck LCD read- out panel has built-in illumination, as do the D850’s control keys.
Optical viewfinder is the biggest yet on a Nikon D-SLR with a magnification of 0.75x… just to make the point.
Dual memory card slots are for the SD and XQD formats. SD compatibility extends to UHSII speed SDHC and SDXC types.
Joystick control on rear panel is primarily for facilitating faster AF point selection, but can be assigned to other duties.
Four-way key cluster ‘dial’ is a standard fitting on Nikon’s highend D-SLRs. The D850’s control layout is identical to that of the D500.
Connection bays have separate covers to enhance weather protection.
‘Live Live view screen can be configured with a ‘virtual horizon’ level display, guide grid or a real-time histogram (although only when exposure preview is activated).
‘Autofocus tracking can be fine-tuned to better match the subject’s movement characteristics and the shooting situation.
‘At last. Nikon provides a focus peaking display to assist with manual focusing in live view.
Dial for setting exposure compensation is marked up to +/-3.0 EV, but up to +/-5.0 EV is available via the ‘Quick Navi’ or ‘Fn’ menus. Main mode dial includes positions for three customised camera set-ups. New, a third dial allows for direct setting of drive modes while a selector switch below sets the focusing modes.