Nikon D850 – First Impressions

I recently purchased a Nikon D850 to replace my aging D700. I’ve been very happy with my D700 – see Nikon D700 Review (and D850 Preview). But the 12 megapixel D700 sensor showed its limits, for example when I wanted to crop a photo, or when I was looking for more detail in landscape photos.

In this post I like to share my first impressions of the Nikon D850. I must admit that I didn’t get much use of the D850, so my experience is still that of a newcomer to this camera model (but not to Nikon). The observations I share here are in no particular order of importance, just a list.

General

The Nikon D850 has one of the highest resolution sensors of any current DSLRs. It’s a top of the line camera within the Nikon range and comes with a price tag to match. High frame rate (7 fps, or 9 fps with optional grip), fast and accurate focus system, high resolution, wide selection of lenses, and tons of features lend this camera to a variety of tasks such as studio, portrait, wedding, landscape, sports, and wildlife photography as well as photojournalism and astrophotography.

In recent years Sony has given DSLR manufacturers a run for their money with their mirror-less system. Today the Sony a7R III stands on equal footing with the Nikon D850, and each system has some advantages over the other.

The reason I opted for the Nikon was my investment in Nikon lenses, but also the steeper learning curve I’d have to master when starting out with the Sony.

Size and Weight

It’s big and heavy, but not as heavy as the old D700. If necessary, you could use it for self-defense, and probably continue shooting photos afterwards.

Battery

Everybody is raving about the D850 battery life. The official number is 1840 shots with one battery, according to CIPA standard. I haven’t yet set out to machine-gun my targets, so the shutter count on my D850 will rarely exceed 500 images on a day of shooting. I also review the images I take and zoom in to check sharpness (after all, I’m still a newbie concerning the D850). Bottom line: Battery life is good, but I perceive no improvement over the D700.

Built-in Flash

There is no built-in flash! (Not that I used it much on the D700.)

User Interface and Controls

While the D850 pretty much feels like my old D700, some controls have changed. I’ve already met with some of these changes when I bought the Nikon D7200. One example is the position of the focus mode selector.

Focus Mode Selector

The Focus Area Mode selector has been removed from the back of the camera (where the Live View Type Selection lever is on the D850) and kinda replaced by a push button on the Focus Mode lever on the front of the camera. You change between manual focus and autofocus using the Focus Mode lever – same as before with the CSM lever. To change the focus mode or the focus area mode, you press the button in the center of the focus mode lever using your left thumb, and turn the main or sub dial using your right hand thumb or index finger. Now try to do that while pointing your camera and telephoto lens at a flying bird.

When hand-holding a camera with a telephoto lens such as the 70-200/f2.8, there is no way you can change the autofocus mode or autofocus area mode without taking the camera down. So unless you use a tripod, you cannot make focus system changes on the fly. I wish there was an easier way to adjust the focus system, without having to take down the camera to make the adjustments.

Knowing these limitations, make sure that the optimal focus area and focus mode are selected before starting to shoot. In addition, you can program the lens function button (you find them on the fast Nikon telephoto lenses like the 70-200/f2.8, but not on the Nikon 200-500/f5.6 😥 ):

Custom Setting Menu -> f Controls -> f1 Custom control assignment -> Lens focus function buttons -> AF-area mode plus AF-ON

There are several options, with or without AF-ON – choose the one that suits you best. For example, you may want to set your camera to 9-point dynamic area autofocus and the lens function button to switch to 25-point dynamic area autofocus, or 72-point, or use group autofocus.

Exposure Compensation

Nikon has not changed the location of the exposure compensation button, but the button on the D850 is more flat and easier to miss. Perhaps to please the Canon shooters, Nikon has reversed the exposure compensation dial action. Luckily this can be rectified in the Custom Settings Menu:

Custom Setting Menu -> f Controls -> f4 Customize command dials -> Reverse rotation -> Exposure compensation

If you’re a long-time Nikon shooter, do yourself a favor and reverse the reversed dial action. You’ll be thanking me.

Image Review & Noise Reduction

Did I mention how great the color LCD touch screen is? Well, here it is: it’s almost perfect. A double-tap on the review image zooms in to a 100% view, allowing me to quickly check sharpness and noise. Wait a second – noise?!

At higher ISO (say ISO 1,000 or higher), the color LCD will hardly show any noise, not even at 100%. Once the images are transferred into Lightroom, the noise is clearly visible at 100%.

When shooting RAW (as I do), Nikon creates a full size jpeg image that is embedded into the RAW file. According to Thom Hogan, it is this embedded jpeg that is shown as the review image on the color LCD:

Remember that the image you see on the color LCD is from the
embedded JPEG if you’re shooting in NEF. That means that all
camera settings are being applied to it.

This embedded jpeg is produced using the camera settings including picture profile and High ISO noise reduction. Since I had high ISO noise reduction set to “normal”, my in-camera previews showed very little noise as noise reduction was applied on the embedded jpeg. A better setting is “off” and select Picture profile = “neutral” (mine was on “standard”).

Because of the high amount of detail this camera captures, noise that is clearly visible at 100% enlargement on a large screen can be insignificant when the image is printed on paper at small sizes, say A4, let alone when displayed on the web.

Other than this particular issue with noise and the camera default settings, the new color LCD is fabulous. It is bright and contrasty and allows image review even under bright sunlight. If the color LCD screen is not bright enough for you, you can adjust the brightness via the Setup Menu.

Focus and Metering

Focus Acquisition

Having tested several lenses, including the Nikon 16-35/f4, the Nikon 70-200/f2.8 VR (1st version), and the Nikon 70-300/VR, the Nikon D850 focuses quick and precise. It works well under low light conditions, too.

I haven’t tested all my lenses yet, and I’m waiting for the arrival of a new member of the family – the Tamron 15-30/f2.8. So expect to see some more.

Exposure

Shooting RAW, the D850 tends to underexpose a little. Thom Hogan’s Complete Guide to the Nikon D850 goes into the details. I have had some exposure inconsistency with my Nikon 16-35/f4 lens but the Tamron 15-30/f2.8 G2 doesn’t exhibit this problem – looks like the Nikon lens needs repair.

It pays to occasionally check the histogram. By default, many image review options are turned off. To turn them on – including the histogram – go to the menu:

Playback Menu -> Playback display options -> RGB Histogram

There are some more options you may want to activate.

Image Quality

Despite all my criticism above (and some praise too), the camera produces some of the highest quality images I’ve seen so far. More details below.

Dynamic Range

The D700 already allowed good shadow recovery, the D7200 with its smaller APS-C sized sensor much less so. The D850 is better than both. Images shot at base ISO (ISO 64) and properly exposed hold enough shadow detail to allow you to push the shadows to 100% in Lightroom, without getting visible noise. Severely underexposed images can be pushed by 2 stops and more without showing much noise. This is what I was hoping for, giving me enough leeway to work on the photos in Lightroom. Awesome.

White Balance and Color Reproduction

White balance is mostly spot on, much better than my Nikon D700 and the D7200. Colors are also more natural (using the Lightroom “Standard” profile). Even under artificial light, the photos look natural. Great job!

Detail (Sharpness)

This camera produces incredible detail. So much so that one has to work on his/her technique. Forget the “1/focal length” rule for shutter speed – you’ll better try “1/(4*focal length)”, that is 4 times the shutter speed you were used to. Too low a shutter speed and the slightest movement or camera shake will show!

Unless you use a tripod, you better use VR or “vibration reduction” lenses. But the best technique and/or tripod support can’t make up for inadequate lenses. Time to test your lenses and determine the winners and loosers. After all, what’s the use of buying a camera with one of the highest resolution sensors when you pair it with lenses that are light-years behind the resolving power of the camera. See more under lenses.

Low Light Performance

Low light performance is neither stellar, nor bad. More or less what one would expect from a full frame sensor. Noise appears as luminance noise, not color noise, which would be more problematic.

To make a fair comparison to other cameras with a lower resolution, you need to “reduce” the larger image of the D850 to the image size of the lower resolution camera. The easiest way to accomplish that – without changing the original image – is to zoom in so that the D850 image has the same size on screen.

For example, when comparing the D850 image to a Nikon D7200 image with a resolution of 24 MP, you need to view the D850 image at roughly 1:2. Use the “Change zoom level” in Lightroom to zoom in at 1:2 (see image below).

D850 image viewed at 2:1
D850 image viewed at 2:1 using the “Change zoom level” feature of Lightroom

Ecosystem

A camera is only as good as the lenses and accessories that are available for that camera. Nikon has a plethora of lenses to choose from, and there are 3rd party F-mount lenses from companies like Sigma, Tamron, and Zeiss, to name a few.

Lenses

I own over a dozen F-mount lenses, but only a few of them are worth using on the D850. Lenses that I loved using on the D700 will need to be reevaluated on the D850.

Manual Focus Lenses

Nikkor 50/f1.4 AI-S: I haven’t tested it yet on the D850, but I suspect that it won’t live up to expectations. On the D700 it was a great lens, with a beautiful micro-contrast that would easily reveal it from other lenses.

Nikkor 105/f2.5 AI-S: Nice portrait lens on the D700. Haven’t tested it yet on the D850.

If I was rich or if I could justify the purchase, I’d probably get the ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 ZF.2 lens.

Autofocus Lenses

Note that the images below have been processed in Lightroom and are not SOOC (straight out of camera).

Nikon 16-35mm f/4 AF-S VR: Problems with corner and edge sharpness, even when stopped down. My copy might be broken as I have exposure issues with this lens.

Hansen House, Jerusalem
Hansen House, Jerusalem: Shot with the D850 and 16-35/f4 @16mm 1/160 f6.3 and edited (Lightroom Transform, Color Efex Pro 4)
David Waterfall, Ein Gedi, Israel
David Waterfall, Ein Gedi, Israel: Shot with the D850 and 16-35/f4 @22mm 1/200 f7.1

Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 G2: Just arrived (June 19, 2019). It’s a massive, heavy lens. VR (or VC vibration control, as Tamron terms it) is way better than on the Nikon 16-35/f4. I was able to repeatedly take sharp photos at 30mm and 1/5 second, handheld without any support. Sharpness is good, especially when stopped down a little, though some loss of sharpness has to be expected in the extreme corners.

Nikon D850 with Tamron 15-30/f2.8 G2
Christ Church, Jerusalem: Shot with D850 and Tamron 15-30/f2.8 G2 (3 image HDR processed in Lightroom and NIK Color Efex Pro 4)

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (first version): Soft at f5.6. Will need to do some more testing.

The Golden Gate, Temple Mount, Jerusalem
The Golden Gate, Temple Mount, Jerusalem: Shot with the D850 and 70-200/f2.8 VR @200mm, 1/200, f5.6 and slightly cropped

Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR: I bought it recently as a lighter travel lens. Haven’t had a chance to really test it.

Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR: Sharper than the 70-200 f/2.8 above. I don’t like the bokeh, and the lens is somewhat “sterile”. I will hold on to it for a while to see how it performs. It’s certainly much more of a travel lens than the 70-200/f2.8.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem: Shot with the D850 and 70-300/f4.5-5.6 VR @240mm 1/250 f8

Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR: Have only shot a few images, nothing to really make up my mind. On the D7200 the 200-500 has disappointed me with dull images lacking sharpness. I fine tuned the lens on the D7200, but haven’t had a chance to test it in real life.

Accessories (Flashes, tripods, etc.)

Speedlight SB-800: Works as advertised on the D850.

Manfrotto 190CLB with Manfrotto 486RC2 ball head: While not a bad tripod, it’s too heavy to log around on hiking trips. The D850, however, requires a good tripod for much of the landscape or wildlife shooting.

I ordered the Novo Explora T5 Carbon Fibre Professional Tripod Kit, a lightweight travel tripod that I hope will find good use. More about it when it arrives.

Edit June 20: The tripod arrived and with only about 1,400 grams it is really light. I was surprised to find that it would reach a height of around 175 cm with the middle column fully extended.

The stability of the Novo Explora T5, however, doesn’t compare well with the Manfrotto. The latter is much more rigid on the ground. I removed the rubber feet of the Novo but that didn’t make a big difference either. In other words, I will have to use delayed shutter release in times when camera shake would cause a problem. But with shutter delay enabled, the tripod works fine both with short and long exposures. It will go in my travel kit when I head for Europe in the summer.

The CBH-34 ball head that comes with the Novo Explora 5, however, is a different story and way better than the Manfrotto 486RC2 head. Damping is better and easier to adjust, for one thing. The Manfrotto head would also change the angle when locking down the ball head. I would have to raise the camera/lens vertically by just a bit in order to get it into the position I was aiming for – quite annoying. The CBH-34 on the Novo tripod doesn’t exhibit this problem and is really easy to handle. The only downside to the CBH-34 ball head is the spirit level indicator which is under the Swiss Arca plate and cannot be used when the camera is mounted 🙁 .

Software

Adobe Lightroom 6 (6.14 to be precise) works well with the D850 files. However, I consider moving to Adobe CC. Editing takes sometimes a few seconds until the screen image is refreshed. My main issue, however, is the large catalog I have. I need to split my images into different catalogs, but I haven’t decided on the strategy. Creating smaller catalogs should help improve speed.

Edit: I subscribed to the Lightroom Classic and Photoshop “Creative Cloud” plan. After switching, my Nikon camera profiles were gone. I needed to copy them from the old location to the new one, where Lightroom now looks for them. Adobe could have done a better job. Besides, why aren’t they installed in the first place?

The new Lightroom features – in particular the “texture” slider – are welcome. NIK Color Efex Pro 4 still works fine with the new Lightroom.

Computer Hardware

You need a computer to edit your photos. It better be a computer with some processing power. My home-made PC is already old (8 years) and I’m running Lightroom in a virtual machine (VFIO passthrough). As described above under Software, processing 45 megapixel files takes more resources and computing power than 12 MP or 24MP files. My Intel i7-3930K & Nvidia GTX 970 are holding up nicely, but undoubtedly a new Intel 9900K  based PC would be noticeably faster.

The people at Puget Systems are regularly testing and benchmarking Lightroom/Photoshop on different hardware and you might find their website helpful (note that I’m not affiliated with Puget nor do I get any commission or benefits from linking to them).

Other Thoughts

I had hoped that I could get by with at least some of my basic lenses such as my most used lens, the 16-35/f4. But the way I see it now is that the camera really requires better glass.

One of the many considerations that led me to stay with Nikon is reliability. None of my cameras – except the D70 that had a recall for a manufacturing issue – ever failed me. All of them have seen extreme weather, in particularly heat, but also rain. And all of my Nikon cameras are still working, including the D70 from 2004! Except for the very recent exposure problem with the 16-35/f4 on the D850, I have never encountered any issues with lenses. All these are reasons for staying with Nikon.

When looking at alternatives to the Nikon D850, I seriously considered Sony. But in the past, the Sony a7 had problems with overheating. I’m also not sure the Sony has the same water-tight build the D850 has – see the Imaging Resource weather sealing test. All these criteria are important to me.

I hope my “first impressions” have been helpful.

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