Nikon D850 Field Test Part I

 
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Nikon D850 Field Test Part I

Nikon's megapixel monster is more versatile than ever

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Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
14-24mm f/2.8G: 14mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 200, Remote TTL flash fired
This image has been edited. Please click photo for original.
Introduction

Back in 2012 when Nikon launched the D800 and D800E, those models, in a sense, reignited the megapixel race amongst camera manufacturers. At the time, no other DSLR offered that kind of resolution. Yet despite the high megapixel count -- which has the potential to be detrimental to image quality, particular at higher ISOs -- the Nikon D800-series, both the original and successor D810 model, have all earned rave reviews for image quality performance.

These high-resolution Nikon DSLRs, while an excellent choice for crisp, detailed photos of slower, more deliberate subjects such as landscapes, portraiture and architecture, often compromised on speed, namely continuous burst shooting rates. Now, don't get me wrong, the D800 and D810 weren't slow, sluggish cameras, but at about 4fps and 5fps, respectively, for their maximum burst rates, they weren't exactly designed as the go-to choice for professionals when it came to photographing sports and action subjects.

However, with this third iteration of Nikon's D800-family, the new D850 appears to address the needs of all sorts of photographers, from portrait and landscape folks to photojournalists and sports photographers, all despite the increase in resolution from 36-megapixels to 45.7. The D850 is packed with the latest-generation EXPEED 5 image processor, giving it the horsepower to handle and process these even-more-massive images. Not only do you get more resolving power, the D850 also offers more speed -- a claimed 7fps for full-res images, or up to 9fps if you add the optional battery grip that uses a beefy D5-style EN-EL18 battery pack.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
70-200mm f/2.8E VR: 185mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s, ISO 160, +0.7EV
This image has been edited. Please click photo for original.

The new sensor and processor allow for other high-performance and data-intensive features, such as 4K/30p video, built-in 4K timelapse creation (or 8K-ready timelapse without in-camera movie building), 1080/120p slow-motion video and simultaneous video recording to the memory card(s) while streaming out a 4:2:2 8-bit 4K signal via HDMI. On paper at least, this is a lot of firepower.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Nikon-organized press junket in Bend, Oregon to test out the new Nikon D850 in a whole range of different shooting scenarios. In this first part to our Nikon D850 field test, I'll discuss the camera's design changes and build quality as well as some of the operational quirks I experienced while testing the camera. Then, I've dive into the image quality and shooting performance of this new pro-tier high-res DSLR.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Product Image

Nikon D850 Build Quality and Handling

At first glance, the Nikon D850 doesn't looks significantly different from its predecessor; it's still sporting a classic, full-sized DSLR shape with large viewfinder hump and Nikon's characteristic red accent across the front of the grip. It's really once you get the camera in your hands that you begin to notice the small details, tweaks and improvements to the camera's design.

For starters, the grip itself is redesigned. In a similar fashion to how Nikon revamped the grips of their smaller DSLRs as of late, the new D850's grip is slightly, but noticeably thinner so it fits into your hand better. The grip also feels deeper, which altogether makes the camera very secure in the hand. I don't consider my hands to be all that large, more average-sized really, and the D850 feels great in my hands. My fingers wrap nicely around the grip and into that "L" crux of the camera. The rubbery coating is tacky enough for extra comfort and grip, too.

Further, the middle finger indentation/contour under the red accent fits my hand nicely, and Nikon has also noticeably but subtly increased the size of the thumb notch on the back of the camera. Compared to a Nikon D800E, which I held side-by-side, the D850 feels much more comfortable and secure to hold. To me, the D800/D810 had this fullness, this kind of bulkiness to its grip, whereas the D850 just feels "right." To me, it feels more similar to a Canon 5D Mark IV, for example, but I actually prefer the feel of the D850.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Product Image
Classic DSLR controls with both refinements and quirks

For the most part, the buttons and dials on the D850 are pretty straightforward, especially for anyone already familiar with DSLR cameras. Of course, if you're moving from a different camera brand, the layout of everything will take a bit of getting used to, but I didn't find any major stumbling points. As someone who's well-versed in Canon and Olympus cameras, I nevertheless felt pretty comfortable using the camera, even in the dark. I unfortunately kept forgetting about the new illuminated buttons, since it requires an extra flick of the power switch. It's a really helpful feature, especially during my astrophotography outings, just so long as you remember that it's available!

The buttons and dials on the D850 are generally nice and responsive, and I appreciate some of the new button placements as well, like the dedicated ISO button right up top behind the shutter release. There's also lots of customization with numerous buttons that can been reassigned as you see fit to better suit your shooting style. For example, you can assign the center button of the multi-directional control to instantly zoom-in to 100% in Playback mode, which I found really handy to check focus. The only negative thing I can think of about the controls from a physical standpoint is in regards to the multi-directional control; it feels somewhat mushy and imprecise (though I never really mis-pressed it) and can audibly "creak" and squeak when you press it. Perhaps its due to whatever weather-proof gasket is used to seal that button, but it's the only thing that feels cheap, in a sense, on this otherwise solidly-built, expensive camera.

Like most of Nikon's higher-end DSLRs, the D850 doesn't have a typical PASM mode dial, but rather a Mode button that you need to press and hold, then use the rear thumb dial to change exposure/shooting modes. I found this a bit on the clunky side and slower than a simple PASM dial, even a locking one. It does, however, better ensure that you don't accidentally change shooting modes while running around.

A similar "press-and-hold button" is the Focus Mode selector button. For me, this button -- which is featured on many Nikon DSLRs -- is in the worst position ever for an AF mode button. I realize the switch is actually mechanically disengaging the AF motor down there, but having the AF mode button there as well is very awkward. I feel like AF mode is a setting that gets changed quite often, and having that mode button tucked away out of sight is quite strange. Plus, the fact that you need to press and hold it to change the AF settings is quite frustrating, especially if you have larger lenses attached. For example, I was shooting motocross with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens, which is very long and quite heavy, but still hand-holdable for periods of time. This pairing was heavy enough that I couldn't hold the base of the camera in my left hand and press the AF mode button with my thumb. I had to basically prop-up the lens with my leg, while I pressed and held the AF button. Not only do you need to press the AF button to switch from AF-S to AF-C modes, but you also use that button when changing AF point configurations. It became quite annoying to adjust AF settings on the fly while using that heavy lens, especially since I was switching back and forth between various AF point settings to see what worked best for the subject.

When I first starting using the D850, one thing that also tripped me up at first was the dedicated "OK" button. Like many cameras, the D850 has a multi-directional control button with a central "select" button. For most interactions with the camera's menus, pressing this central "select" button works great for confirming selections and menu navigation. It was therefore confusing when I went to format a memory card and found that you must press the dedicated "OK" to confirm card formatting. The directional button won't work at all for that single menu item. Oddly, the camera's GUI displays other menus items with the "OK" button icon, too, yet they all function just fine when you press the directional button. I'm guessing it was designed this way to make you pause and help prevent accidental card formatting. Nevertheless, having that dedicated "OK" button seems a little strange, especially given its location, seemingly lost within a row of buttons.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Product Image

The Nikon D850 also introduces another multi-directional control, this one placed above the top-right corner of the LCD: a joystick-style control, named "sub-selector" in Nikon lingo. By default, this button is dedicated to moving the AF point, which I find very helpful. There's no need to toggle anything with any other button, but rather, it's a conveniently-placed joystick control that lets you instantly move the AF points (or AF point clusters). However, by default, pressing the sub-selector will not reset the AF point to the center spot; oddly, the multi-directional control's center button is set to do that. Thankfully, I was able to quickly reassign that function to the sub-selector. If you want, you can also set the sub-selector to behave the same as the directional control; it's up to you.

Auto AF Fine Tune is really nice, but good luck figuring it out...

Another quirk I discovered has to do with the new Auto AF Fine Tune feature for autofocus micro-adjustments to counteract front- or back-focusing. Like the D5 and D500, on which this feature debuted, the D850 has the ability to automatically calibrate the autofocus accuracy of up to 20 different Nikkor lenses. When using prime lenses with fast apertures in particular, it's critical to have accurate AF, otherwise, for instance, you may think your focus is right on a subject's eye, but come to find out instead that her nose was actually in focus. Given the high-res sensor in the D850, I wanted my lenses to be precise in their focusing.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
85mm f/1.4G: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/500s, ISO 160

Now, I generally like to just grab the camera and start using it, without resorting to the manual. I like experimenting and learning by trial-and-error. But, when it comes to Auto AF Fine tune, I have no idea how one would figure out how to use this feature without resorting to a manual. For one, it's not explained at all within the camera's menus. And even when I looked at the provided instruction manual itself, it still doesn't explain it. No, it actually tells you to go online and download a supplemental PDF (PDF direct link) that explains all of the camera's menu items. Only then is it explained how it works: you need to be on a tripod, use Live View, attempt to focus, then simultaneously press the Movie Record button and AF selection button on the left side of the camera. Hold the two buttons down for a couple seconds, and then the camera will alert you that it has calculated an AF calibration value. Finally, you can go back to the AF Fine Tune menu to see that a +/-20 fine-tune value has been saved for that particular lens. Whew.

With the explosive growth of mirrorless cameras, the need for AF micro-adjustments is something I haven't thought about in a while. For mirrorless cameras, the focus is done on the sensor itself, so front and back focusing isn't really a problem. However, phase-detect AF on a DSLR is calculated via a completely separate sensor, down below the imaging chip inside the camera, and things need to be precise in order for AF to be accurate. While shooting with the D850, the AF Fine Tune was always in the back of my mind. Whenever I got a soft shot, I would question, "Was it user error or does my lens need calibrating?" I ended up using Auto AF Fine Tune a few times, both with the 85mm f/1.4G and 105mm f/1.4E lenses, which both needed strong AF correction (around +15-17). Even the 16-35mm f/4 VR lens I used needed some AF micro-adjustment. Once dialed-in, things were fine, but I do enjoy not worrying about such things with mirrorless cameras.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
16-35mm f/4G VR: 24mm, f/4, 1/500s, ISO 140
Big, bright and crisp touchscreen LCD is great for tripod shooting

The other big physical design change is the rear LCD, which is now an up/down tilting display that's also touch-capable. There seems to be two camps when it comes to articulated camera screens: those that prefer tilting displays, and those that want fully articulated screens. As someone who mainly wants to shoot photographs, I really prefer the tilting display of the D850 (I was bummed to see Olympus change styles with the E-M1 Mark II). Those who shoot more video, however, are likely to think the opposite and want the articulated screen, which I totally understand. I think it's clear that Nikon is still considering the D850 more of a stills camera than a video shooter, despite its new video features.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Product Image

Since it's a DSLR and not a mirrorless camera, I found myself shooting with the optical viewfinder most of the time, and only turning to the LCD for menu diving or reviewing shots. Plus, given the D850's unfortunately sluggish contrast-detect Live View AF, I didn't find myself making use of the tilting design or the touchscreen functionality for the majority of my photo-taking. That being said, I did find Live View very useful for tripod shooting for morning landscapes and other stationary shooting. I only had a fairly short travel-sized tripod, so being able to tilt the LCD screen upwards instead of having to crouch down to compose scenes and focus was quite nice.

The touchscreen itself feels responsive and the D850's menus can all be operated using the touchscreen, but again, muscle memory kicked in and I generally just used the multi-directional control to navigate the menus. But, if you want to use touchscreen for that it's there for you. The D850 includes both tap-to-focus as well as a full touch-shutter mode, which lets you tap the screen and the camera focuses and fires a shot immediately.

Given the sluggish contrast-detect AF, Live View shooting feels decidedly less useful on the D850, in my opinion. Live View AF here isn't really quick enough for anything other than stationary subjects. Plus, depending on the lens, focus noises can be pretty apparent (not a big deal for stills, but troublesome for video). However, I was able to devise a situation whereby you'd want a camera as quiet as possible, and thanks to the D850's new "Silent Live View Photography" mode and its touchscreen, you can take photos completely silently with the Nikon D850...

Let's say you're a photographer covering a wedding or a press conference during which keeping noise as minimal as possible is critical. If you can get by with manual focus (no AF noise), the D850's "Silent Live View Photography" mode combined with the touchscreen's Touch Shutter option, the camera is truly silent. It feels like a bit of a workaround or at least a scenario with definite compromises, but it can be done if you need it, which is nice.

The rear display itself on the D850 is very good. The 3.2-inch LCD panel is very large and very crisp; both text and photos look really nice. Most of the shooting I've done has been outdoors, often in bright, sunny conditions, and I found the screen was really easy to see in the sun, even at its default, mid-range brightness level.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
16-35mm f/4G VR: 16mm, f/11, 0.4s, ISO 64
A wonderful, massive optical viewfinder

While the rear LCD is very nice, the D850 is a pro-level DSLR, and I think it's safe to say most folks are going to shoot with the optical viewfinder. And oh what a nice one it is! With a 0.75x magnification factor, the D850's viewfinder is Nikon's largest one ever (and an increase from the 0.72x OVF in the D810). The D850's viewfinder is massive, giving you a bright, crisp, and very large view of the scene before you. Although I didn't have a D810 with me to compare, I did look through a Canon 5D Mark IV, and it's quite a stark difference to see just how large the D850's viewfinder really is. Exposure info and other electronic details around the periphery are also crisp and easy to read. And I really liked, too, the ability to enable a virtual horizon in the viewfinder.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
24-120mm f/4G VR, 24mm, f/4, 1/3200s, ISO 140
Weather-sealing: The D850 is ready to take a beating

Finally, I'd like to briefly mention the weather-sealing. As many are probably already aware, the D850 is weather-sealed, or as Nikon states it: "featuring dust and water-drop resistance." The camera body itself is built out of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber; it's super-tough and feels really solid in the hand. The camera is designed to withstand the rigors of the day-to-day professional workflow, no matter the environment, more or less. I wouldn't go so far as to run it under a faucet to clean it off, but this is definitely a camera that doesn't need to be babied.

During my time with the D850, I've not subjected it to moisture or rainy conditions, but while in Oregon, I was often shooting outdoors. The motocross shooting session, in particular, was dry, dirty and very dusty. The camera got nicely covered in dust throughout the day from the passing, jumping dirt bikes, and I had no issues with the camera.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
200-400mm f/4G VR: 400mm f/4, 1/3200s, ISO 360

Nikon D850 Image Quality

OK, so the camera looks great, feels great and has the specs to seemingly shooting almost anything, but what's the image quality like? The Nikon D800-series has always received very high marks for image quality, and the D850, thankfully, is most definitely not straying from that trend.

Low ISO image quality: Tons and tons detail!

With a full-frame sensor packed with nearly 46-megapixels, the Nikon D850 is undoubtedly capable of capturing images with lots of fine detail. The very high-res sensor, as I've mentioned before with the Canon 5DS R and Phase One XF 100MP, requires a bit more careful shooting technique, especially when shooting handheld -- a faster shutter speed is likely required than you might typically use. The "1/focal length" rule of thumb for shutter speed usually won't cut it. The individual pixels of the sensor are very tiny and a much smaller amount of camera movement poses a greater risk for per-pixel blurring, so you'll need to account for this with a faster shutter speed -- perhaps even 1/(2x focal length).

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
85mm f/1.4G: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/1250s, ISO 64

As I mentioned earlier, too, focus accuracy is also critical for getting what you want sharp to be truly tack-sharp. Perceived depth of field is much more noticeable. In other words, at 1:1 on a high-resolution 45.7MP image, you can much more clearly see exactly where the image is in-focus and where it's not.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
100% crop from unedited RAW file (opened in ACR with default settings).

But when you nail it, you nail it, and the Nikon D850 captures wonderful images with tons of crisp, fine detail. Really sharp, high-quality lenses with lots of resolving power are also very much recommended for getting the most out of the Nikon D850 sensor.

I had an opportunity to shoot a variety of high-res-friendly subject matter, including landscapes and portraiture. I was amazed -- as I always am with high-res cameras -- at the kinds of small details I can easily make out when zooming-in to 100%. As you can see from a few example crops in this section, the D850 easily captures details like the individual eye lashes of a model's eye or the color of a backpack on a far-off hiker in a wide landscape scene.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
16-35mm f/4G VR: 18mm, f/4, 1/500s, ISO 160
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
100% Crop from JPEG: Despite this ultra-wide 18mm photo, there's enough resolution to see far-off detail in the grass, rocks and trees as well as spot another photographer with a tripod and a red/orange backpack and a mountain biker even further in the distance.

High ISO: Excellent noise control like its predecessors

Image quality at low ISOs is one thing, but a camera as versatile as the D850 need to handle higher ISOs as well. The majority of my time shooting the D850, however, was outdoors in daytime conditions, so higher ISOs typically weren't necessary. I did do some astrophotography, which needed an ISO range of 5000-6400, and a few nighttime scenes at higher sensitivities. In general, I was really impressed with the higher ISO capabilities of the D850, which isn't surprising given how well the camera's predecessor fared in this area.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
20mm f/1.8G: 20mm, f/1.8, 10s, ISO 8000

Up to around ISO 6400-12,800, the D850 handles high ISO noise quite well, in both JPEGs and RAWs. Looking closely at JPEG files, you can clearly see noise reduction processing at work (at least at the default settings I used), but it provides a nice balance of noise removal while keeping a good amount of fine detail. As with most cameras, shooting RAW and processing the files carefully with your own formula of noise reduction and sharpening will result is more refined quality and more detail.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
24-120mm f/4G VR: 24mm, f/4, 1/80s, ISO 25,600
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
In this close-up crop comparison animation, you can see the NR processing in the JPEG compared to the noise level of the RAW. Despite this, however, there's still a lot of fine detail in this super-high ISO image.
Click here for the full-res versions: JPEG and RAW.

When you really crank the ISO to something like ISO 25,600, images do become very noisy. The JPEGs here, in particular, looks very soft to my eye, with heavy NR processing. However, in both RAWs and JPEGs, there is still some visible fine details, even in areas of lower contrast, which is quite impressive.

Dynamic Range: Excellent shadow details & similar highlight headroom to the 5D IV

Recent Nikon DSLRs have been known for their great dynamic range performance, and the D850 is no exception. Especially with regard to pulling detail back out of the shadows, the D850 offers a lot of leeway, with lots of detail recovery with minimal noise and other artifacts like banding or color shifts. In the majority of the real-world shooting I've done with the camera so far, the metering system has been pretty spot-on, if slightly underexposed in some situations. Auto-exposure options, be it Auto ISO or shooting modes like Aperture Priority, have all worked very well on the D850 and resulted in balanced, well-exposed photos that didn't need major adjustments in post-processing. For these images, simple tweaks to shadows and highlights when processing the RAW files quickly helped reveal details without harming overall image quality.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
85mm f/1.4G: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/500s, ISO 64
In this rather heavily-edited RAW file, you can see -- compared to the inset image of the unedited JPEG -- that I was able to bring back color from the bright sky as well as lift details from very dark shadow areas.

I did, however, want to get a better sense of the D850's dynamic range performance and see just how well it performed with more extreme adjustments to shadows and highlights. I decided to do a quick side-by-side comparison with the D850 against the Canon 5D Mark IV, shooting an admittedly not-so-attractive scene, but one that shows both areas of deep shadow and large highlights. I used base ISO (64 for D850 and 100 for 5D IV) and the same manual exposure settings for each shot.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Nikon D850: 24mm, f/8, 1/50s, ISO 64
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Canon 5D Mark IV: 24mm, f/8, 1/50s, ISO 100

As you can see from the straight-from-camera JPEGs above, in both cameras' images, the shadow areas are nearly devoid of any detail; almost completely black. However, after opening the RAW counterparts into Adobe Camera Raw, I first simply lifted the Shadow slider all the way to 100 and dropped the Highlight slider to -100.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Nikon D850
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Nikon D850

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Canon 5D Mark IV
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Canon 5D Mark IV

Even with this simple adjustment, I was able to recover lots of shadow detail from both cameras' RAW files. Upon closer inspection, the shadow area of the Nikon D850 shot was really clean, with very little noise produced and lots of fine detail. The shadow area of the Canon 5D Mark IV image, however, was noisier and developed a strong purple color cast. I could also see noticeable banding throughout the lifted shadow area on the Canon image.

In a further exposure adjustment to these two files, I boosted the exposure slider by a full two stops, basically exacerbating the effects of the shadow adjustment. The D850 shot was now noticeably noisy, with light splotches of color noise throughout the darker shadow areas. The 5D IV shot behaved similarly: more noise, stronger purple color cast and heavier banding. Overall, the D850 was the stronger performer here when it comes to shadow detail recovery.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Nikon D850: Highlight slider @ -100 / Shadow slider +100
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Nikon D850

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Canon 5D Mark IV: Highlight slider @ -100 / Shadow slider +100
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Canon 5D Mark IV

The story is a bit more interesting when it comes to highlights. I shots a series of images, a +/-0EV shot, a +1EV overexposure and a +2EV overexposure. Before looking at the results, I was expecting the D850 to also pull out ahead of the 5D IV, given the Nikon's D800-series historical strength with dynamic range. Initially, based on looking at the JPEG files, it's evident that the Nikon D850's in-camera JPEG processing handles retaining highlight detail better than the Canon 5D Mark IV (at least at default picture styles/JPEG image presets). Even with the +2EV photo, the D850 JPEG displayed more detail in the sky, kept the bright white cloud visible and had deeper contrast:

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
+2-stop overexposure: Nikon D850 - Straight-from-camera-JPEG
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
+2-stop overexposure: Canon 5D Mark IV - Straight-from-camera-JPEG

However, when examining the corresponding RAW files for the +2EV images, things are much more balanced. In Adobe Camera Raw, both files needed similar levels of highlight recover to eliminate ACR's highlight clipping warnings. Going further, reducing the Highlight slider to -100 on both files recovered a similar level of detail; and both files had more or less the same amount of completely blown highlights. Needless to say, both cameras performed well when it came to highlight recovery, with the D850 and 5D IV sensors having more or less similar levels of highlight headroom.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Nikon D850 - RAW file adjustment: Highlight slider @ -100
Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
Canon 5D Mark IV - RAW file adjustment: Highlight slider @ -100
Quick, nimble performance despite the multitude of megapixels

Continuous autofocus proved fast & versatile

Although autofocus performance is heavily dependent on the lenses used, based on my experience using a variety of Nikon AF-S G-series and E-series lenses, the Nikon D850 is definitely a top-notch performer when it comes to autofocus speed, both in single-shot and continuous AF modes. Sporting the same 153-point AF system as the D500 and flagship D5, the D850's AF system is versatile and fast.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
70-200mm f/2.8E VR: 185mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 125
This image has been edited. Please click photo for original.

With single-shot AF, the D850 was unsurprisingly snappy. I never really had to think about it; it just worked -- the camera can acquire focus, both close-up and far away, nearly instantaneously. Furthermore, the AF system handled low-light conditions really well, too, and I never experienced any issues with hunting or having it fail to focus in low light. It's not infallible, though. If you point it at something devoid of any detail, it'll struggle to focus. Similarly, if you have strong ND filters or try to autofocus on the stars in the night sky, the camera may not autofocus -- but this was all within my expectations. Overall, though, the AF speed was definitely fast enough and accurate enough (once AF Fine Tune was considered), that I could just focus (no pun intended) on other things like composition and exposure.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
70-200mm f/2.8E VR: 185mm, f/2.8, 1/2500s, ISO 160, +0.3EV

The vast array of AF points covers a good portion of the frame, as well, and the sheer number to choose from really let you dial-in your composition and put focus where you want it. Compared to mirrorless cameras, which often have the ability to put the focus point/box pretty much anywhere across the frame, the D850 is a bit limited in that sense. On the D850, in FX mode, the AF points are clustered towards the center, but nevertheless have excellent coverage of the frame for a full-frame DSLR. The D850 does have a DX (crop) mode, and if you can get by with the 1.5x crop factor, the AF points coverage spans across almost the entire frame, especially the width.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
24-120mm f/4G VR: 24mm, f/7.1, 1/1250s, ISO 159

As for continuous AF, much like AF-S, I never encountered any significant issues. While shooting motocross and whitewater kayaking, if I happened to capture an out-of-focus shot, I'm more comfortable saying it was user-error and not the fault of the camera. Other than setting the AF-C priority setting to "FOCUS" priority, I kept other AF settings at default, such as tracking focus sensitivity at the balanced/middle setting. The D850 did a great job of tracking moving subjects over shorts bursts of shots, and the various AF point configurations helped combat missing focus on erratically-moving subjects. For C-AF, the majority of the time I used the 9-point grouping (1 main AF point with 8 surrounding helper points) or the 25-point grouping (1 central AF point with 9 main AF points surrounding it, plus 16 helper points interspersed between the grid). Both of these modes worked well, and still allowed me to use the joystick control to move the point cluster around to suit my composition.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
200-400mm f/4G VR: 260mm f/4, 1/1600s, ISO 141

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
70-200mm f/2.8E VR: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 112, +0.3EV

Burst and Buffer: Big files but no sluggishness

The D850, despite its high resolution sensor, is capable of shooting at up to 7fps, or 9fps with the battery grip. Unfortunately, I didn't have the grip or a chance to try one during the Nikon press trip to experience the faster burst rate, but I still found the 7fps continuous shooting speed to be fast enough for the action subjects I photographed. For the utmost in burst shooting, the D5 (or the D500 if you want a crop sensor) will offer faster performance, but the D850 still holds its own for most fast-paced subjects, I think, especially compared to other high-res cameras. For me personally, I don't often machine-gun shoot with continuous burst of 10+ frames, but rather capture in shorter bursts as I follow the action. For me, this shooting style works fine for something like the 7fps-capable D850. Plus, when you consider just how high-res the files you're capturing really are, the burst performance of the D850 is quite impressive.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
70-200mm f/2.8E VR: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/3200s, ISO 141

For those that do want some extra burst speed, the D850 offers an interesting option, though it's filled with compromises. The camera can shoot up to 30fps with Silent Live View Photography (Mode 2), but you need to accept a few caveats: 1) enable DX crop mode (1.5x); 2) images are only 8.6-megapixels, and 3) it only captures JPEGs at 'Normal' quality level. Still, if you need that kind of speed, it is there!

Regarding buffer performance, we've not yet completed our lab performance testing, but from my experience in the field, the camera is definitely fast with quick buffer clearing for normal, full-resolution shooting. I was provided a fast 128GB Sony XQD card with 440MB/s (read) and 400MB/s (right) speed rating, which certainly helped the camera handle the large RAW+JPEG images I was shooting throughout the week. I never once found myself waiting on the camera, and even after shooting a burst, I could immediately go into Playback mode to review recent shots. And unlike some other camera brands, the D850 doesn't lock you out of the menus while the camera is clearing its buffer, which is really nice.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
200-400mm f/4G VR: 220mm f/4, 1/2500s, ISO 159
Wireless: SnapBridge works but it's still pretty rough

The last feature I want to talk about is SnapBridge wireless connectivity. Like most cameras these days, the Nikon D850 can wirelessly transmit photos (automatically or on-demand) to paired smart devices for easy sharing. The D850 is also capable of wireless remote control using the SnapBridge app. The D850 has both Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth Low Energy, the latter of which helps make and maintain an always-on wireless connection to your smartphone for automatic image transfers (you can disable this as well as put the D850 into "Airplane Mode" if you don't want to constantly stream images over to your phone).

Nikon's SnapBridge system has received a bit of bad rap since its debut a few years ago mainly due to bugs, clunkiness with the app, the setup process, and connectivity issues. This was my first time trying a SnapBridge-enabled Nikon camera, and I had no real issues setting up the connection and pairing my iOS device. I was told to follow the setup instructions from the camera carefully, and as long as I did each step in the proper order, it worked fine.

However, while the setup was painless, using the SnapBridge app proved a bit more frustrating, primarily revolving around sluggishness and having to wait while the app loads information from the camera. While out in Oregon, I used the Bluetooth-only method to connect and browse images -- the default setting that was enabled on my iOS app. Opening the SnapBridge app and reestablishing a connection was easy and the two paired devices quickly saw each other, but it look a long time for the app to display the thumbnails screen for the images from the memory card. One strange behavior is that it's fairly quick to select a single image to view larger and then swipe left or right to go to another image one-by-one, but if you want to then return to the thumbnails screen, you have to wait all over again while the app "Downloads information from the camera" and you can't do anything else with the app until that's finished. Back at home, I actually timed this delay at around one minute, 20 seconds.

For the Bluetooth connection, the app only lets you transfer 2MP JPEGs, which transferred in about 8-9 seconds. If you establish a Wi-Fi connection between devices, it knocks that time down to 3-5 seconds for 2MP images or 35-40mm for the full-resolution JPEG (or at least for the FINE quality JPEGs I used).

The delay in browsing the thumbnail was the only real hiccup I experienced while in Oregon, but back home I ran into a few more issues. For starters, I had the "Allow Wi-Fi access" option now enabled, which is how the app establishes the Wi-Fi connection between devices. The first time I tried to connect, the app simply would not load the thumbnails screen. The app sat there attempting to "Establish a connection with the camera." After over three minutes (I timed it), I shutdown the camera. What I think happened in this case is that my iPhone was already connected to my office Wi-Fi connection, which either confused the app itself or there's some restriction with iOS that prevents an app from changing a device's already-established Wi-Fi connection -- I'm not sure -- but after disconnecting from my office Wi-Fi connection, I was finally able to get the SnapBridge app to: 1) establish a connection, 2) prompt me for switching to the D850's Wi-Fi, 3) sending me into the iOS Settings app and picking the D850's wireless network, and 5) finally displaying images from the camera back within the app. Great, right? Well, not really, since that whole process took well over five minutes! That's excruciatingly slow.

As for remote shooting with the SnapBridge app, things are pretty bare-bones. Remote shooting requires a Wi-Fi connection, so be prepared for that. Once connected, you can trigger the shutter release, both with or without Live View, and you can tap-to-focus within the Live View screen, but you can't do much else. There's no way to change exposure settings or any other shooting setting (besides a self-timer); you have to do that on the camera itself. To do that, you have to exit the remote shooting mode in the app, change your settings on the camera, then tap "remote photography" in the app once more. That back-and-forth doesn't take long, thankfully, but it's annoying if you want to remotely control the camera from far away. You can remotely capture 2MP stills or full-res ones, but not RAW (if you have RAW+JPEG enabled, they'll still be captured, but RAWs will just be saved to the memory card).

Overall, it's nice to be able to share photos quickly while out in the field and away from a computer. Personally, I enjoy being able to share shots on Instagram taken with a "real camera" (I can't believe I said that), and while it's doable with the Nikon D850 and the SnapBridge app, the whole experience is still lacking a lot of features as well as finesse.

Nikon D850 Field Test Part I Summary

All in all, the Nikon D850 is a thoroughly impressive camera. The image quality is stunning, first and foremost. The D850's super-sharp, OLPF-less 45.7MP sensor captures images with amazing detail, pleasing colors, and really nice dynamic range that provides you lots of flexibility in post. Both low and higher ISO image quality is excellent, which makes the D850 an easy choice for those shooting in good and bad lightning conditions. It's worth mentioning, though, that the D850 no longer has a pop-up flash like its predecessors did, so you'll need to bring along a speedlight for the hotshoe or add a wireless flash trigger.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
16-35mm f/4G VR: 26mm, f/4, 1/500s, ISO 178

And despite the high-res sensor, the D850's performance is top-notch. The burst shooting rate is improved yet again over previous models, which this time around really transforms this model from a landscape- and portrait-focused camera to a very versatile, nearly do-it-all camera. Autofocus was equally impressive thanks to its vast array of AF points and super-quick performance for both static subjects and fast-moving ones.

Nikon D850 Review -- Field Test Gallery Image
70-200mm f/2.8E VR: 200mm, f/2.8, 1/2000s, ISO 80
This image has been edited. Please click photo for original.

For the most part, I don't have many serious complaints. Sure, I'd prefer dual memory cards of the same type, and the wireless connectivity clearly needs more polish, but overall, the camera feels great and works great, and the new tweaks such as the tilting touchscreen and redesigned grip are welcomed changes. If you're a working professional photographer or a serious enthusiast and don't need or want the bigger, bulkier and more expensive D5 flagship camera, or you want a high-resolution DSLR that doesn't sacrifice performance, the Nikon D850 should be high on your list.

 



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