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?

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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.

Process Worker

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.

Sharper Weapon

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.

The Verdict

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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...

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