Nikon D850 Image Quality


Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Vibrant colors with about average hue accuracy.

ISO Sensitivity
In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links above to compare ISOs, and click to load a larger version.

Saturation. The Nikon D850 pumps dark blues a lot, dark greens and reds moderately and most other colors slightly, but undersaturates cyan tones slightly when using default settings. Overall, mean saturation levels are higher than average at 115.5% or 15.5% oversaturated at base ISO versus a more typical 10%. The D850's mean saturation is stable up to ISO 800, but gradually falls after that to a minimum of 107% at the maximum extended ISO of 102,400. That's still quite vibrant, though, as many cameras reduce saturation at higher ISOs to help manage chroma noise. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. The Nikon D850's rendering of Caucasian skin tones in "sunlit" outdoor lighting when using default Auto white balance was slightly on the warm, yellow side. Manual white balance on the other hand produced a cooler image with much more pinkish and healthy-looking skin tones. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Nikon D850 produces a few color shifts relative to the accurate translation of colors in its images, as do almost all cameras. Reds are shifted slightly toward orange, light orange toward yellow and cyan toward blue, but there are only very slight shifts in most other colors and the often problematic yellow is almost bang on. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) Mean "delta-C" color error at base ISO was 5.39 after correction for saturation, which is about average, and it remained below 5.7 across the ISO range which is quite good (lower numbers are better). Hue is "what color" the color is.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images


Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Slightly cool results with default "Keep White" Auto white balance, warm with other Auto and Incandescent white balance settings, though excellent color balance with Manual white balance. No exposure compensation required.

Auto WB (Keep White, Default)
0 EV
Auto WB (Normal)
0 EV
Auto WB (Keep Warm)
0 EV
Incandescent WB
0 EV
Manual WB
0 EV

Indoors, in common incandescent lighting, color balance was a bit cool and magenta with the default "Keep White" Auto white balance setting. The "Normal" option was warm but not too bad (we've seen a lot warmer, and some users may prefer this look as being more representative of the original lighting), however the "Keep Warm" option was very warm and orange, as expected. The Incandescent setting was also quite warm but with more of a yellow/green tint. The Manual white balance setting however produced very neutral results. The D850 required no exposure compensation for this shot, while most cameras need about +0.3 EV. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

Outdoors, daylight
Vibrant color with good exposure outdoors, but high default contrast.

Manual White Balance
+0.7 EV
Auto White Balance,
0 EV

The Nikon D850 generally handled tough outdoor lighting under harsh sunlight well in terms of color and exposure. We found skin tones a touch yellow in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with Auto white balance, though, so we preferred the more pinkish skin tones produced when using Manual WB, however the image was a bit too cool overall. Default contrast is on the high side, so quite a few highlights were clipped in the mannequin's shirt, some of the flowers and even in her nose, though deep shadows contain excellent detail and are quite clean here at base ISO. The D850 required +0.7 EV exposure compensation to keep the face and eyes relatively bright, which is about average for this shot. The Far-field image on the right has excellent default exposure, with almost no clipped highlights except of course in specular highlights. Again, detail in the shadows is excellent, and shadow noise is remarkably low. Overall color here with Auto white balance is fairly neutral though quite vibrant.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

>4,000 lines of strong detail.

Strong detail to
>4,000 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
>4,000 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
>4,000 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
Strong detail to
>4,000 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW

Our laboratory resolution chart reveals sharp, distinct line patterns all the way up to the 4,000 lines per picture height limit of our chart from both in-camera JPEG and ACR converted RAW files in both directions, though the in-camera JPEG shows more obvious aliasing in the form of strong moiré patterns and false colors starting at about 3,100 lines. The ACR conversion shows less luminance moiré than the in-camera JPEGs but false colors are more evident, even at lower resolutions. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Very sharp images with exceptional detail, though with visible sharpening halos and aliasing artifacts. Minimal noise suppression artifacts at base ISO.

Excellent definition of
high-contrast elements,
but with some evidence of
edge enhancement.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast,
though detail remains strong in
the darker parts of the
model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D850 produces incredibly sharp, exceptionally detailed images at default settings, though edge enhancement artifacts are visible around high-contrast subjects, such as the fairly obvious sharpening halos around the lines and lettering in the crop above left. Default sharpening is a little higher than we're used to seeing for a pro DSLR, but you can always turn it down if you prefer. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal detail loss due to noise suppression, as the darker areas of the mannequin's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though some begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. The hair is also virtually free from chroma noise, which is often not the case, but some strands do show signs of the "jaggies" and other aliasing artifacts. Still, an excellent performance here. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D850 does a great job at producing crisp images with tons of fine detail in its JPEGs. Let's see how a RAW conversion using our standard converter (Adobe Camera Raw) at base ISO compares:

Base ISO (64)
Camera JPEG, defaults
RAW via Adobe Camera Raw

In the table above, we compare an in-camera JPEG taken at base ISO using default noise reduction and sharpening (on the left) to the matching RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 9.1 via DNG Converter 10.1 using the default camera profile and noise reduction with some moderate unsharp mask sharpening applied in Photoshop (250%, radius of 0.3 pixels, and a threshold of 0).

Here, we can see that Adobe Camera Raw combined with moderate sharpening in Photoshop delivers slightly finer detail than the camera JPEG, with fewer sharpening halos around high-contrast edges. (The D850's lack of an anti-aliasing filter means it's more prone to aliasing artifacts such as moiré patterns, as seen in the red-leaf fabric above.) Noise is slightly more visible in the ACR conversion (default NR used), but is still very low. Colors aren't as warm and vibrant with the Adobe Standard profile used, though plenty of camera profiles are available in ACR including Vivid, Standard, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape and Flat.

Bottom line: The Nikon D850's default JPEG processing produces excellent detail and crispness at base ISO and default settings, though you can still do a bit better with lower sharpening artifacts when carefully processing RAW files.

ISO & Noise Performance
Very good high ISO performance.

Noise Reduction = Default
ISO 32 ISO 64 ISO 100
ISO 200 ISO 400 ISO 800
ISO 1600 ISO 3200 ISO 6400
ISO 12,800 ISO 25,600 ISO 51,200
ISO 102,400

Nikon D850 images are very crisp and clean at ISOs 32 through 400, with almost no chrominance noise and just a touch of luminance noise becoming more visible in the shadows as ISO increases. ISO 800 shows a bit more luminance noise than lower ISOs, but is still quite clean. ISO 1600 is probably the first sensitivity where there is noticeable luma noise when viewed at 100% magnification, though it's very fine-grained and chroma noise is still very low. ISO 3200 loses another small step in image quality, but is still very detailed with low chroma noise. ISO 6400 shows stronger smudging with more visible luma noise, but fine detail is still pretty good and chroma noise is still well controlled. ISO 12,800 still offers good detail versus noise for such a high ISO, however image quality drops off rapidly at ISO 25,600 and above, with high luma noise, strong blurring and other visible noise reduction artifacts, and chroma noise in the form of yellow and purple blotching.

Still, high ISO performance is very good for a full-frame camera, especially considering the very high resolution. Luma noise at high ISOs does appear a little higher than from its predecessor, the D810, but the increased detail and lower chroma noise more than make up for that. Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We used to shoot this image at f/4, however depth of field became so shallow with larger, high-resolution sensors that it was difficult to keep important areas of this shot in focus, so we have since started shooting at f/8, the best compromise between depth of field and sharpness.

Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
High default contrast led to some blown highlights in default JPEGs. Excellent low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight. Surprisingly, the Nikon D850 struggled a little with the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test, because of its somewhat high default contrast. (Apologies for the cool manual white balance, as we probably could have done better.) We felt that the default and +0.3 EV exposures were too dim, while +1.0 EV blew too many highlights. The best overall exposure was +0.7 EV but it still led to some blown highlights in her shirt, flowers and even her nose. There are also some dark shadows at +0.7 EV, but detail in them is excellent and shadow noise is quite low for the resolution. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon D850's Active D-Lighting control set to its default of "Off", and enabling it would have likely preserved all highlights even at +0.7 EV. See below for how Active D-Lighting helps with hot highlights and deep shadows.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)

Active D-Lighting
Active D-Lighting attempts to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows in high-contrast situations, while maintaining moderate levels of contrast. The series of shots below show the effect of the various Active D-Lighting settings (Off (default), Low, Normal, High, Extra High and Auto) available on the Nikon D850 on our high-contrast "Sunlit" Portrait scene.

Note that Active D-Lighting is different from the Retouch menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images, though, Nikon very properly doesn't apply tonal adjustments like this to RAW file data. NEF files are however tagged so that Nikon software can automatically apply the effect when converted.)

"Sunlit" Portrait Active D-Lighting (0 EV)
ADL Settings:






Extra High

Mouse over the links to see how the various levels of Active D-Lighting affects our "Sunlit" Portrait shot at default exposure, and click on any link to get to the full-res image. (Active D-Lighting's effect can be a little subtle in shots like those above, so we decided to use a mouse-over with matching histograms to better show how each setting compares.)

As you can see from the thumbnail images and histograms above, Active D-Lighting had a pretty subtle effect at default exposure which was quite dim for this shot. You can still see however that shadows and deeper midtones were boosted while highlights were maintained and even reduced at higher settings. This isn't a very good example, though because of the dim default exposure. See below for a better example. As mentioned previously, the default ADL setting for the D850 is Off, while in more consumer-oriented models the default is Auto.

Far-field Active D-Lighting (0 EV)

Here we can see the effects of Active D-Lighting on our Far-field shot, where it worked better since the default exposure wasn't dim as it was with our "Sunlit" portrait shots. As you can see, Active D-Lighting brought up shadow and midtone levels while holding onto most highlights, resulting in a brighter, more balanced exposure without looking flat. The Auto setting did a pretty good job here, producing results similar to the Low setting.

HDR Mode
Like other more recent Nikon DSLRs, the D850 offers an in-camera high-dynamic-range imaging function. When enabled, the D850 captures two images with one push of the shutter button -- one underexposed and one overexposed -- and combines them in-camera to produce a high-dynamic-range JPEG. (RAW format is not supported.) There are three exposure differentials available: 1, 2 and 3 EV, as well as an Auto option, and there are three Smoothing options: Low, Normal and High. You can also elect to do a series of HDR shots without having to re-enable the mode each time, or select a Single Photo option.

Far-field HDR mode
3 EV:

Mouse over the links to see how the Auto, 1 EV and 2 EV levels of HDR with default Normal Smoothing as well as 3 EV with Low, Normal and High Smoothing affect our Far-field shot at default exposure. Click on a link to get to the full-res image.

Obviously moving subjects should be avoided, as you can see from the ghosting in the flag, branches or person in some of HDR shots above. Aside from the noticeable halos and "glowing" caused by the Low Smoothing option, we think Nikon D850's HDR feature is one of the better in-camera implementations, however you can most certainly do better by bracketing more exposures and combining the images yourself.

Dynamic Range Analysis (RAW mode)
While we once performed our own dynamic range measurements based on in-camera JPEGs as well as converted RAW images (when the camera was supported by Adobe Camera Raw), we've switched to using DxO Labs' results from their DxOMark website. As technology advanced, the dynamic range of modern high-end cameras in some cases exceeded the range of the Stouffer T4110 density scale that we used for our own measurements. DxO's approach based on RAW data before demosaicing is also more revealing, because it measures the fundamental dynamic range of the sensor, irrespective of whatever processing is applied to JPEGs, or to RAW data by off-the-shelf conversion software.

In the following, we use DxO's "Print" dynamic range results, which are scaled based on camera resolution. As the name suggests, this scaling corresponds to the situation in which you print at a given size, regardless of how many megapixels the camera might have. (In other words, if you've decided to make a 13x19 inch print, that's the size you're printing, whether the camera's resolution is 16 or 300 megapixels.) Also note that DxO Labs uses a signal-to-noise (SNR) threshold of 1 when defining the lower boundary of acceptable luminance noise in their dynamic range measurements, which corresponds to the "Low Quality" threshold of the Imatest software we used to use for this measurement.

Here, we compare the Nikon D850's dynamic range to that of its predecessor, the D810, as well as to probably its closest competitor, the Sony A7R III.

As you can see from the above graph (click for a larger version), the D850's peak dynamic range at its base ISO of 64 is essentially the same as the D810's (14.81 vs 14.76 EV), but as sensitivity is increased, the D850 pulls ahead by as much as almost one EV higher than its predecessor at ISOs 400 and 800. At higher ISOs the D850's lead diminishes, but is still significant.

Compared to the Sony A7R III, the D850 has a slight advantage at its lower base ISO (14.8 EV at ISO 64 vs 14.7 at ISO 100 for the Sony), however it's doubtful that such a small difference can be seen in real-world images. The two cameras are quite similar up to their ISO 800 settings, where the Sony starts to pull ahead with up to about about a 0.8 EV lead at the highest ISO.

Bottom line: Excellent dynamic range from the D850, with the highest dynamic range of any full-frame camera at base ISO as of this writing. Click here to visit the DxOMark page for the Nikon D850 for more of their test results and additional comparisons.

  1 fc
11 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16 fc

2 s

30 s

30 s

1/15 s

1 s

1 s

1/125 s

1/8 s

1/8 s

Low Light. The Nikon D850 performed very well here, able to easily capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night) at ISO 100, though our lowest light level would likely be a bit dim below ISO 100 because of the D850's 30 second shutter speed limit (Bulb mode is required for longer exposures).

Color balance with Auto white balance was generally quite neutral, but shifted towards cyan at the maximum native ISO of 25,600 when the light level was dropped to 1/16 foot-candle, and even more so when noise reduction was minimized. Overall, though, low-light Auto white balance performance appears to be improved, without the strong magenta shift we saw with the D810 and some other Nikons at lower light levels.

Noise isn't an issue at ISO 100, and is very well-controlled at ISO 3200. The top native ISO of 25,600 was of course noisier but still very usable with luma noise that is fine-grained and chroma noise that is quite low, except when noise reduction is minimized (right-most column).

We didn't notice any significant issues with hot pixels or heat blooming in our tests, and banding (fixed pattern noise) appears to be very low even in the deepest shadows.

Low-Light AF: The D850's phase-detection autofocus system was able to focus on our legacy low-contrast AF target reliably down to -3.0 EV unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, and down to -4.4 EV on our newer high-contrast target. This is very good, exceeding Nikon's spec of -4 EV with our high-contrast target. Interestingly, we got practically identical results using contrast-detect AF in Live View mode, although focusing took longer with some hunting. Note that unlike the D810, the D850 does not have a built-in AF illuminator, but most dedicated flash units have one.

(Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D850 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Excellent 30 x 40 inch prints at ISO 32-400; a nice 24 x 36 at ISO 3200; a good 8 x 10 at ISO 25,600.

ISO 32/64/100/200/400 all produce outstanding 30 x 40 inch prints and higher, with wonderful detail and color, as large as you can print until you run out of resolution from the 45.7-megapixel sensor. The image quality at these low ISOs from the D850 is simply stunning, and your printer will love you in return with delightful prints.

ISO 800 produces a very nice 30 x 40 inch print as well, with crisp fine detail and virtually no trace of strain from having raised the gain. This is, in fact, one of the best 30 x 40 inch prints we have seen at this ISO since beginning our print quality analysis many years ago.

ISO 1600 is also quite good at 30 x 40 inches, with nice fine detail on display and wonderful colors still abounding. There is now only a mild hint of noise reduction artifacts in the flatter areas of our test target, but only upon close inspection. A very nice print overall.

ISO 3200 is the first ISO setting where the Nikon D850 appears to show any real strain from having raised the gain, requiring a reduction in print size for the first time to a still large 24 x 36 inch print. Crisp fine detail and full colors are still represented at this size, and there's only a minor trace of noise in flatter areas of our target, as well as a minor softening of detail in the red channel.

ISO 6400 has become somewhat of a benchmark gain setting, separating the better full-frame models from the pretenders. The D850 manages a capable 16 x 20 inch print here, which is twice the size (4x the area) that the average crop-sensored camera typically manages. There are similar minor issues as found in the 24 x 36 inch print at ISO 3200, but still quite a nice image. 13 x 19 inches would be a good recommendation here for your most critical printing applications though.

ISO 12,800 delivers a good 11 x 14 inch print. This is, once again, a rather large size for this lofty 5-digit gain setting. Colors are, for the first time, slightly muted in general, and there is a bit of noticeable noise in flatter areas of our target. There's also a loss of contrast detail in our tricky red-leaf fabric swatch, but that's typical of most all digital cameras by this sensitivity.

ISO 25,600 yields a solid 8 x 10 inch print, which rivals or exceeds most of the best digital cameras produced today that we've tested (with the one notable exception being the medium format Fujifilm GFX). We see similar issues as with many of the prints discussed above, with some minor noise apparent in the flatter areas of our test target and a loss of contrast detail and some softening in the red channel, but it's still a print that very much passes our good seal.

ISO 51,200 prints just pass our "good" grade at 4 x 6 inches, and 5 x 7's will work here for less critical applications, though colors are now a tad on the muted and slightly “scorched” side. Anything larger is simply too noisy to be useful.

ISO 102,400 doesn't produce a worthwhile printed image, and we suggest avoiding this ISO setting entirely.

The Nikon D850 delivers outstanding performance in the print quality department, as we would expect given the storied history of this camera line. While slightly besting its predecessor the D810 by a print size at ISO 1600, it otherwise matches stride with its popular forebear at all other gain settings. It does however best the Sony A7R III and Canon 5D Mark IV rivals at several notable gain settings, allowing it to retain its crown as the king of the printing world for full-frame cameras, and further justifying its Best Overall Camera award for 2017.


The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D850 Photo Gallery .

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D850 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

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