The first thing I thought when I took the D850 out of the box was ‘HA! Take that Nikon, I’m a girl and I’m testing your man-camera!’ When I mentioned it to another female camera reviewer she told me she thought she could see why they’d only featured male ambassadors; her tiny hands couldn’t reach all the controls comfortably, and she found it heavy. I didn’t personally find this to be a problem, despite having pretty small hands too – but I am a longtime Nikon user and my usual kit consists of both a D800 and D700 body, so that could be why this next generation camera felt so at-home in my hands. It weighs in at just over 1kg, battery included; only around 10g less than the D800; I could reach the front function buttons without issue.
With a 45.7MP sensor, those who shoot RAW will need a lot of fast storage on hand – though it’s worth the investment for the incredible sharpness the lack of a low-pass filter can provide. There are actually three different RAW size options – the full 45.7MP size, a medium “mRAW” at 25.5MP and an 11.MP small “sRAW”, which might be helpful to those who, like me, find 45.7MP a bit excessive, but for the purposes of this review I stuck to the full size RAW files (plus a fine JPEG copy). The lack of low-pass filter means that moire might cause a few problems when shooting repeating patterns but it didn’t present an issue to me in any of my test shots.
The D850 has has dual XQD and SD card slots, and I own only two very-fast SDs and a stack of compact flash cards, so I wasn’t able to test the dual functionalities. The Nikon site tells us you can use them for overflow, backup or for separating RAW and JPEG files – all quite standard but undoubtedly useful dual card slot functions.
Since the D800 is my usual workhorse and the design is very similar, I had no trouble finding my way around and setting the D850 up exactly how I like it – my first port of call is always to enable back button focus. There was one big change that threw me though – the ISO control has moved from a button on the wheel on the top left side of the body to its own dedicated button on the right side between the status screen and shutter. The mode button has moved to where the ISO button used to be, and old habits die hard. I actually really like that change – it keeps all the exposure controls in one area of the body – but it would take some getting used to. I kept finding myself accidentally changing to shutter priority mode when I intended to change my ISO, and while I have absolutely no doubt that I’d catch up quickly and get used to the new position it would make using an older body as a second camera confusing if you needed to switch between the two often.
Another big change is that the D850 has no built-in flash. I honestly didn’t even notice at first, and I’m sure nobody has missed it – it’s hard to get good results from a pop-up flash on any camera. Nikon says that not having a built-in flash means the D850’s better weather-sealed than previous models since there are less seams to protect, which could make this a big positive for people who need their camera to stand up against inclement weather conditions, and that it also allowed more room for the new larger, higher magnification viewfinder. I can’t say that I noticed a difference with the viewfinder but I certainly didn’t find fault with it either.
Nikon really stepped up their fast shooting game with this body, with 7fps continuous shooting (or 9fps with a grip). Pair that with a super-fast 153 point AF system that mirrors the D5’s and you’re ready to capture fast-moving actions easily – great for wildlife and sports shooters, although it’s important to note the camera doesn’t have built-in GPS – a shortcoming not found in many other manufacturers’ offerings. The brand new AF point joystick makes choosing your focus point much easier than with previous bodies. The tilting LCD would also come in very handy for those moments when you need to shoot with live view from down low or up high, but it’s not going to help with your selfie game – although if you’re looking at a D850 for selfies you probably have the wrong idea, unless you’re a remote-shutter self-portrait wizard. I somehow wasn’t for aware almost the whole time I had this camera that the screen is also touch sensitive, so you can touch to focus and shoot in live view or quickly zoom in to check focus in playback mode with a double tap.
The D850 is the first Nikon body to offer full frame 4K video, although focus peaking and digital stabilisation are only available in 1080p mode. It also offers a 1080 slow motion mode to capture at 120fps and a nice flat profile for a bit of extra dynamic range. Beyond what I do for my YouTube channel I don’t do a lot of video work, so I can’t vouch for it as a pro videographer might, but I do love the idea of an auto ISO mode which allows you to set your shutter and aperture for a specific creative look and let the camera choose ISO accordingly – and of course, you can set a maximum auto ISO level to avoid ending up with unusably noisy footage. I could see this feature being handy for wedding videographers and others who are always dealing with changing lighting situations and need to reset quickly for the next shot.
Silent mode is an idea I’m only just starting to come around to – not being able to hear the shutter is disorienting to me. Available only in live view on the D850, the screen still blacks out and the auto review confirms that you did in fact take a shot, but I prefer the aural confirmation (and shooting through the viewfinder wherever possible). The D850’s silent mode uses an electronic front-curtain shutter and is also available in continuous for those moments when you need to be stealthy. I could see it being a useful function for me when photographing more religious and reverent church and chapel weddings, but since the majority of my work happens outside in the wild (so to speak), it’s not something I’d seek out in the near future.
I’m not a film shooter, but for those who are the D850 can help you convert your negatives to 45MP files – you will need some extra equipment though; a macro lens and possibly a film digitising adapter, which will set you back another $320 or so, but in the long run it could be a great investment versus sending your film off to be scanned.
There’s a useful twist on the in-camera time lapse function that will keep down the wear on the mechanical shutter by using the aforementioned electronic shutter, which would also cut down on vibration for long exposure shots. The camera can put the time lapse images together into a 4K video for you or save them as full resolution files that you can assemble into a time lapse video yourself – which Nikon calls ‘8K time lapse’ since the files are larger than 4K video’s dimensions – see my example in the video at the top of the page. There’s also a focus shift mode (best used with a tripod) that can shoot a series of images with different focus distances for you to later stack in post for a tack-sharp image all the way through.
For a versatile, feature-packed and reliable D-SLR camera it would be hard to go past the D850, and it would serve someone who shoots both stills and video well.
Score: 9 out of 10
Highlights: Incredibly sharp, fast autofocus, suitable for many photography styles
Lowlights: No built-in GPS, greater potential for moire in areas of repetitive detail
Price: RRP $5299.95 (body only)