Nikon D850 The Gamechanger Full Frame DSLR

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The Nikon D850 is Nikon’s latest high resolution full-frame DSLR, boasting a 46MP backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. But, in a fairly radical departure for the series, it is also one of the company’s fastest-shooting DSLRs. This combination of properties should significantly widen the camera’s appeal to high-end enthusiasts as well as a broad range of professional photographers.

Key Specifications:

  • 45.7MP BSI CMOS sensor
  • 7 fps continuous shooting with AE/AF (9 with battery grip and EN-EL18b battery)
  • 153-point AF system linked to 180,000-pixel metering system
  • UHD 4K video capture at up to 30p from full sensor width
  • 1080 video at up to 120p, recorded as roughly 1/4 or 1/5th speed slow-mo
  • 4:2:2 8-bit UHD uncompressed output while recording to card
  • 1 XQD slot and 1 UHS II-compliant SD slot
  • Battery life rated at 1840 shots
  • 3.2″ tilting touchscreen with 2.36M-dot (1024×768 pixel) LCD
  • Illuminated controls
  • 19.4MP DX crop (or 8.6MP at 30fps for up to 3 sec)
  • SnapBridge full-time Bluetooth LE connection system with Wi-Fi
  • Advanced time-lapse options (including in-camera 4K video creation)
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High resolution

The use of a backside illuminated (BSI) sensor means that the light collecting elements of the sensor are closer to the surface of the chip. This should not only increase the efficiency of the sensor (improving low light performance) but should also be expected to make the pixels near the edges of the sensor better able to accept light approaching with high angles of incidence, improving peripheral image quality.

Like the D810 before it, the D850 continues to offer an ISO 64 mode, that allows it to tolerate more light in bright conditions.

The D850 has gained a more usable electronic first curtain shutter option, which can now be used quiet shutter mode, as well as live view and Mirror-Up mode. To get the full benefit, though, you need to turn on exposure delay (which has had two sub-second delay settings added). However, exposure delay persists across all shooting modes. Thankfully, and presumably thanks to a redesigned shutter and mirror mechanism, our quick check with a pre-production model suggests shutter shock may not be an issue, even without engaging it.

The D850 has no anti-aliasing filter, which should allow for slightly finer detail capture but with added risk of moiré, if any of your lenses are sharp enough to out-resolve a 45.7MP full-frame sensor. There’s still no sign of the clever design Nikon patented so, unlike the Pentax K-1 or Sony RX1R II, you can’t engage an anti-aliasing effect if you do find false color appearing in densely patterned areas.

High Speed

In addition to the increased speed, the D850 also gains the full AF capabilities of the company’s flagship sports camera: the D5. This includes all the hardware: AF module, metering sensor and dedicated AF processor, as well as the full range of AF modes and configuration options, which should translate to comparable focus performance combined with high resolution.

Given the D5 possessed one of the best AF systems we’ve ever seen and could continue to offer that performance in a wide range of conditions and shooting scenarios with minimal need for configuration, this is an exciting prospect.

As part of this system, the D850 gains the automated system for setting an AF Fine Tune value. It only calibrates the lens based on the central AF point and for a single distance, but it’s a simple way to ensure you’re getting closer to your lenses’ full capabilities, which is handy given you’ll now be able to scrutinize their performance with 46MP of detail.

Impressively, the D850 can shoot at nine frames per second if you add the optional MB-D18 battery grip and buy an EN-EL18b battery, as used in the D5. As well as increasing the camera’s burst rate, this combination also ups the battery life to a staggering 5140 shots per charge. You don’t get this same boost in speed or endurance if you use a second EN-EL15a in the grip, though.

An MB-D18 plus an EN-EL18b is likely to set you back over $580 over and above the cost of the camera body ($399 for the grip, around $149 for the battery, $30 for the BL-6 battery chamber cover plus the cost of a charger).

The D850 also includes a sufficiently deep buffer to allow fifty-one 14-bit losslessly compressed Raw files, meaning the majority of photographers are unlikely to hit its limits.

Video capabilities

In terms of video the D850 becomes the first Nikon DSLR to capture 4K video from the full width of its sensor. The camera can shoot at 30, 25 or 24p, at a bitrate of around 144 Mbps. It can simultaneously output uncompressed 4:2:2 8-bit UHD to an external recorder while recording to the card.

At 1080 resolution, the camera can shoot at up to 60p, with a slow-mo mode that can capture at 120 frames per second before outputting at either 25 or 24p. The 1080 mode also offers focus peaking and digital stabilization, neither of which are available for 4K shooting.

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Body & Camera Features

The D850’s body is primarily made from magnesium alloy and fairly closely resembles the D810. The newer model gains a D750-style flip up/down cradle for its rear screen, which is not only much higher in resolution but also touch sensitive. Unlike the D5 and D500, this touch sensitivity can be used in live view mode and for navigating menus, as well as for in playback mode.

The camera’s grip has been reworked, making it more comfortable than the D810 when holding the camera for long periods or with heavy lens combinations.

The most obvious visual difference between the cameras is a different viewfinder hump, with the new camera having no built-in flash. Instead, strobe users will have to make do with the flash sync socket or purchase the WR- radio control trigger set (the WR-A10, WR-R10 and WR-T10 that allow remote triggering of the camera or remote control of radio compatible flashguns such as the Speedlight SB-5000).

Nikon says that the removal of the onboard flash allows the D850 to be better weather-sealed than the D810, since there are fewer seams on the top of the camera to protect against moisture ingress.

Autofocus hardware

As with the Nikon D5, the D850 has a 153-point AF system featuring 99 cross-type points. The central AF point is rated as working in light as low as -4EV, with the rest still active at -3EV (and, since the metering sensor is meant to work down to this level too, it may still be possible to use the camera’s 3D tracking mode in these very low light conditions). Fifteen of the camera’s AF points clustered near the center of the frame will work with lens + teleconverter combinations with maximum apertures of just F8, which should make it useful for pursuits such as birding.

This Multi-Cam 20K AF system, like the D5’s, offers a good degree of frame coverage for a full frame camera: 30% wider than on the D810, the company says. The move from the D810’s 91,000-pixel metering sensor to the D5’s 180,000-pixel chip should improve subject recognition. This and the inclusion of a dedicated AF processor means the D850 should be a match for the D5, which can keep AF points on a moving subject even in continuous shooting, rather than subject tracking performance dropping noticeably during bursts, as the D810’s did.

So far as we understand, the only significant difference between the D850’s AF system and the D5’s is the viewfinder display. The D5 has an organic electro-luminescent display layer that allows it to light the active AF points as they change in 3D tracking mode, the D850 has an LCD layer on which the points only light up when they’re manually moved or when focus is initiated or acquired.

Viewfinder

The removal of the camera’s built-in flash frees up room for a new viewfinder, so magnification is able to leap from 0.7x to 0.75x which is the largest optical viewfinder on any Nikon DSLR. The larger finder, which features a new condenser lens and an aspherical element in the design, retains a reasonable (17mm) eye point, as we understand, so the whole scene should be visible even for most glasses wearers.

Time-lapse

As with previous Nikon cameras, the D850 has intervalometer functions built in, so that you can capture time lapses without any external accessories. This feature can be combined with the camera’s silent shutter live view mode, to avoid vibration or excessive wear on the mechanical shutter, though with the risk of rolling shutter.

The camera can either assemble the images together in a 4K video or retain the full resolution files, to allow you to create a full resolution time-lapse in third-party software. Nikon uses the camera’s high resolution to brand this second capability as “8K Timelapse,” since the images exceed the 7680 × 4320 dimension of that video format.

Like previous Nikons, the intervalometer lets you specify the number of shots and the delay between them but now adds the ability to create a new folder and reset the file numbering for each time lapse sequence, so that the files can easily be isolated and transferred to 3rd-party software.

Focus shift

The D850 can also use this ‘new folder and reset the counter’ approach for another of its features. The Focus Shift mode prompts the camera to shoot a series of photos at different focus distances. You can specify the number of images, the size of the distance steps and whether there’s a delay between each shot. Unlike the similar feature on Olympus and Panasonic cameras, the Nikon can’t combine the resultant images, but it can place them in a separate folder to make it easy to import them into 3rd-party focus stacking software.

We’re told the focus steps will be selected on a dimensionless 0-10 scale, presumably because the distance of the increments will vary depending on the type of lens you use.

SnapBridge

The D850 includes Nikon’s SnapBridge connectivity system. This establishes a full-time Bluetooth LE connection between the camera and compatible smart devices. This is a step forward from the D810, which had no built-in wireless options, however, we have not found the SnapBridge system to be a good match for high-end systems in the past.

Existing implementations of SnapBridge lean very heavily towards using the Bluetooth connection to transfer images (unlike Samsung and Canon’s approaches, which use it just to keep lines of communication open, so that Wi-Fi communication can be established more rapidly). The camera can transfer every image it shoots automatically either at 2MP or in full resolution, but only over Bluetooth. Select the images on the camera and those will be sent (slowly) over Bluetooth, too. The only way of accessing Wi-Fi and its greater transfer speed is to use the app to browse your memory card and select from there.
Without a significant reworking of the SnapBridge app, we are concerned that the combination of a high-speed 46MP camera and a primarily Bluetooth-based connection with no ability to send Raw files will be inappropriate for the typical D850 user.

…it could really be a camera for all seasons 

The Sony a99 II showed it was possible to offer high resolution images and fast shooting, but the D850 takes this a step further. There are some ‘ifs,’ of course, but if the sensor can offer the low ISO image quality of the D810 combined with the AF of the D5 at between seven and nine frames per second, then it could really be a camera for all disciplines, from high res studio work to street fashion, weddings, sports, landscapes…

Whether it lives up to this promise will come down to the implementation, and it’s what we’ve experienced of this, hands-on, that leaves us impressed. For a start, it seems that a revised shutter and mirror mechanism has resolved the shock issues the D810 exhibited with longer lenses. This is a critical improvement for such a high resolution camera and one that isn’t directly covered in the specs, but our quick shots suggest it’s done the job.

We weren’t able to examine the camera’s high ISO performance, but a quick check at base ISO suggests the ISO 64 mode does offer a DR advantage over ISO 100, which is what allowed the D810 to match the dynamic range performance of the GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z. We’ve also not had a chance to check the shadows, so this is a very preliminary impression, but ISO 64 does seem to be a ‘real’ sensitivity setting (i.e., not just ISO 100, but clipping earlier).

 

 

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