Nikon D850 Field Test Part II

 
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Nikon D850 Field Test Part II

Nikon's new DSLR shines in the field - is it their best camera ever?

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 11/21/2017

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 380mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 400.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW file.
Introduction to Field Test Part II

In William Brawley's Nikon D850 Field Test Part I from Bend, Oregon, he covered a lot of the camera's features and functionality. If you have yet to read his Field Test, click here. In this Field Test Part II, I am going to take a closer look at working with D850 RAW files and discuss how the camera performs in the field with respect to wildlife and night photography. Further, I'll write about my experiences using the D850 as a longtime D800E user.

Working with the D850 RAW files

In-camera RAW processing

Like other Nikon cameras, the D850 offers in-camera RAW processing. This allows you to take RAW images and perform a variety of edits to the file before exporting it as a JPEG. You can change the JPEG quality, image size, white balance, exposure compensation, Picture Style, strength of high ISO noise reduction, color space, vignette control and Active D-Lighting settings. You can also get a live preview of the changes you're making on the display. Once you've made the desired processing selections, you can then export the JPEG file of your choice to either memory card slot. What makes the D850 special though is that you can perform batch RAW processing to either selected images, all images on a chosen card or all images together. Not only is this a great feature, but it works really well and is very quick, with RAW files being processed and exported as JPEGs in only a couple of seconds.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- RAW processing Screenshots
The Nikon D850 offers batch in-camera RAW processing. RAW files are processed in a matter of seconds.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- RAW processing Screenshots
You have access to a variety of editing and processing options when performing in-camera RAW processing.

RAW file flexibility

While in-camera RAW processing is great, what about working with RAW files on a computer, which is by far a more common use case? When you increase the megapixel count and file size, you are also putting greater demands on your computer. This is something to keep in mind, but assuming that you have a capable workstation, editing the D850 45MP RAW files is a very enjoyable experience.

The Nikon D850 has fantastic dynamic range, as evidenced by analysis performed by Photons to Photos and DxOMark. Nikon's reputation for producing cameras with excellent dynamic range is well-known, and the D810 in particular was a very well-regarded camera for its dynamic range performance. The D850 manages to keep pace with the D810 at very low ISOs and outperforms it as you go above ISO 400. If you want one of the best full-frame cameras on the market in terms of dynamic range, it's tough to top the D850.

This excellent dynamic range pays big dividends with respect to RAW file processing. As you can see in the comparison shot below, I was able to recover a lot of shadow and highlight detail when working with the RAW file. The first shot below is the original straight-from-the-camera JPEG image, and the second is a RAW file which has been processed solely with highlight and shadow sliders in Adobe Camera Raw. That kind of flexibility is incredible, and the D850's showing here is phenomenal.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 24mm, f/8, 1/25s, ISO 1250.
Straight from the camera JPEG image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 24mm, f/8, 1/25s, ISO 1250.
This image was processed in Adobe Camera Raw. Notice that even at ISO 1250, the D850 still shows a remarkable ability to recover shadow and highlight detail. Click for full-size modified image.

It is not simply about pushing shadows and highlights. A high-quality sensor also allows for a lot of other types of edits that could create issues with tonality or banding in files from lesser cameras. Being able to manipulate colors and finer details without introducing noise or other image quality problems is a must for many types of photographers, landscape photographers in particular. It's not unusual for me to push a file to its limits during post-processing.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 24mm, f/6.3, 1/8s, ISO 64.
Straight from the camera JPEG image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 24mm, f/6.3, 1/8s, ISO 64.
This image has been modified. I was able to push the limits of this file at ISO 64 without creating any banding or issues with noise. When shooting at or near base ISO, the D850's files are incredibly flexible. Click for full-size modified image.

In terms of overall file flexibility, the D850 is as impressive as any full-frame camera I've used. I was already very impressed with the now-outdated Nikon D800E, and the D850 is even better, which is quite the accomplishment.

In the Field: Wildlife Photography

While it may be surprising that a 45-megapixel full-frame camera could be a good choice for wildlife photography, the D850 is a very capable camera in that regard. The camera can shoot at up to 9 frames per second with the optional battery grip attached and with an EN-EL18 battery (the same battery as is used in the Nikon D5). The camera shoots at 7 fps otherwise. In both cases, the camera is plenty fast for most wildlife shooting scenarios. In my case, I had the battery grip and EN-EL18 battery, so I was able to test the D850's best-case shooting setup.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 440mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 200.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 440mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 200.
100% crop of the above image. Click for full-size image.

The ability to not only have images captured at 9 fps, but also have 45 megapixels to allow for extensive cropping and still have a usable photo is very nice. There are many times when a full-frame sensor makes it difficult to fill the frame with your subject, but you don't necessarily want to give up the flexibility that a full-frame sensor offers for other shooting situations. This is where a high-resolution FX sensor comes in handy because it allows for a lot of cropping without severely reducing image quality.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 450mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 3200.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 450mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 3200.
This is a 100% crop from the above original JPEG file. Even at ISO 3200, the camera is capturing quite a bit of fine detail with default noise reduction applied, although in my opinion, the default noise reduction might be a bit excessive. Click for full-size image.

Utilizing the same autofocus system as the Nikon D5 and D500, the D850 unsurprisingly delivers very good autofocus performance. What makes the D850 a bit different than the D5 and D500 is that the camera is capturing very high-resolution images. If you miss focus by a smidge on the D500, it might not be very noticeable. If you miss focus by the same small amount on the D850, however, it is very apparent.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 800.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for camera JPEG. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon has helped deal with some of the inherent issues with DSLR autofocus systems by including its Automatic AF Fine-Tune feature, but that feature, as helpful as it is, still lacks the ability to dial in autofocus microadjustment for different focal lengths with zoom lenses. This proved problematic with my Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens, which has slightly different focusing issues throughout the focal length range. There were also times when the lens missed focus considerably, despite having been checked for AF fine-tuning. This is not a problem I've had with the same lens on the Nikon D500.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 2000.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for camera JPEG. Click here for RAW file.
In the Field: Night/Astro Photography

The first day that the D850 arrived on my doorstep for my Field Tests, the chances for auroras looked pretty good. The skies were going to be clear for a few hours after sunset and the moon was not going to be an issue, so I packed up the D850 with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens it came with and headed to Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park. Having chased the northern lights many times, I know very well how much luck plays into it. You can make the trip and get all set up and no auroras develop. Sometimes an aurora display lasts less than a minute, other times it goes on for hours. In this case, the aurora appeared, but it was quite brief. While I was hoping for a longer display, the fast-paced situation proved to be a great test of the D850.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 27mm, f/2.8, 15s, ISO 4000.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for camera JPEG. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 27mm, f/2.8, 15s, ISO 4000.
100% crop from the above modified image. Even at ISO 4000 and with moderate post-processing, the RAW file held up well. I applied some noise reduction to the image, but you can still make out good detail in the trees along the hilltop that would come out nicely in a large print. Click for full-size image.

The very first image I captured with the camera after its arrival was an aurora shot. If you've never shot auroras, I assure you that they are very demanding, and no two displays are the same, meaning that you cannot completely rely on a predetermined group of settings. The D850's illuminated buttons proved very helpful as its control layout is a bit different than those of my D800E and D500 cameras. In a situation where every second counts, for a camera to be intuitive and user friendly is a great help. Plus, I was not yet familiar with the 24-70mm f/2.8E lens as far as infinity focusing is concerned. Every lens is a bit different in that regard, my 14-24mm f/2.8G is different from my 24-70mm f/2.8G, for example, and the 24-70mm f/2.8E is different from the older non-VR G version, too. The live view functionality worked very well and allowed me to quickly dial-in the manual focus.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Illuminated Buttons
The D850's illuminated buttons are an excellent feature for any photographer who regularly works in low-light, especially while you are still becoming familiar with the camera's control layout.

If you have used a recent high-end Nikon DSLR cameras, the D850 should feel familiar. There are minor differences in how the camera handles, but it's a Nikon DSLR through and through. This is a good thing, assuming you like how Nikon designs its cameras. Compared to the D800E, the Live View functionality of the D850 was superior during the night shooting expedition, and the tilting display was very helpful. The star of the show for me was the illuminated buttons though, which really helped me become familiar with the camera's layout.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 32mm, f/2.8, 15s, ISO 6400.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for camera JPEG. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon D850 versus Nikon D800/D810

As a Nikon D800E owner since that camera launched in April of 2012, I was very excited to get my hands on the Nikon D850. While I don't think that the D850 is the revolution that the D800 was, the D850 has improved upon its predecessor in essentially every meaningful way.

Not only is the D850 equipped with an excellent and improved sensor, but it also includes much faster continuous shooting, much better autofocus, better metering, a more refined camera body, a tilting touchscreen display and 4K video recording. There are many other improvements, but that list alone should be enough to make most D800/D810 owners consider upgrading.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Nikon D10 vs Nikon D850
While this comparison is not perfectly to scale, we can see that the Nikon D850 (right) looks quite a bit different than the D810 (left), particularly when we look at the back of the camera. The D850 includes a tilting touchscreen display, dedicated autofocus point joystick and a revised control layout. Not pictured, there is also a relocated ISO button on the top right portion of the D850's body. This button is on the left side of the top of the D810. In the favor of the D810, that camera has a built-in flash, whereas the D850, like the D500, ditches it.

Whereas the D800E was well-designed as a high-resolution DSLR camera, it came up short for faster or more demanding shooting scenarios. Wildlife photography has been difficult at times with the D800E due to the slow shooting speeds and somewhat lackluster autofocus performance. The D850, on the other hand, is one of the most versatile cameras I've tested. There is very little that the D850 cannot do. Never has a Nikon camera been better equipped to handle such a wide variety of photographic situations.

Field Test Part II Summary

The D850 is as impressive in the field as it is on paper

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 55mm, f/8, 1/160s, ISO 800.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW file.

What I liked:

  • Great high ISO image quality
  • Impressive autofocus speed
  • Illuminated buttons

What I disliked:

  • Rear directional pad feels mushy and at times unresponsive
  • Some surprising missed focus at times
  • Not negative for the camera, but you'll need a quick computer and a lot of hard drive space

Thus far, the Nikon D850 has been a very impressive DSLR. It's everything that the D800/D810 was and a lot more. The camera's newfound speed is not only a welcome improvement, but likely a game changer for many photographers. If you're looking for high resolving capabilities and don't want to sacrifice speed, the D850 is the best option Nikon has to offer. While the D800/D810 was designed almost solely for high resolution applications, the Nikon D850 can handle essentially any type of photography.

Nikon D850 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E lens at 30mm, f/11, 3s, ISO 64.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for camera JPEG. Click here for RAW file.

Nikon has included a lot of video improvements in the D850 as well, which will be the primary focus of our third and final Nikon D850 Field Test, so stay tuned to Imaging Resource for that.

 



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