Exclusive Nikon D850 Product Q&A with Nikon Japan

Left to right: Eiji Eguchi [Chief Staff, Product Planning, DCIL, UX Planning Department, Marketing Sector, Imaging Business Unit]; Naoyuki Murakami [Department Manager, 1st Designing Department, Developing Sector, Imaging Business Unit]; Hiroaki Ono [Department Manager, Global Marketing Strategy Department, Marketing Sector, Imaging Business Unit]; Masayuki Numako [Section Manager, Product Planning, DCIL, UX Planning Department, Marketing Sector, Imaging Business Unit]

While on recent trip to Japan -- with one stop being a visit with Nikon to attend the award ceremony for Nikon's annual Photo Contest -- Dave Etchells had a chance for an exclusive interview and Q&A session with top Nikon engineering and marketing staff in Tokyo to discuss, among other things, the all-new Nikon D850. In typical IR fashion, we will, of course, bring you the full in-depth interview in short order, but we wanted to pull out relevant excerpts from the interview as it pertained to the D850.

Compiled from the Q&A session, below we have series of details and key insights into the major features and performance specs of Nikon's new pro high-res DSLR:

1) The D850 uses the same (excellent) AF system as the D5 and D500.

  • It includes the special, dedicated AF processor used in those cameras, that both handles the large number of AF points, and also provides the horsepower for the exceptional subject-tracking speed and ability seen with those cameras. (Many users and reviewers consider the D5's AF system to be the best in the business, period.)

2) Standard DX AF point coverage, in DX mode.

  • When shooting in DX mode, the D850's AF system has exactly the same coverage as it does on the D500.

3) Still only one AF fine-tune offset per lens.

  • When we asked whether the D850 would support different AF fine-tuning adjustments based on aperture (to handle lenses with spherical aberration, that shift their focus point slightly when stopped down) or for wide and tele focal lengths on a zoom, Nikon replied that they're aware of user requests in this area and are studying the feasibility, but it sounds like it won't be possible to add this capability to existing cameras via firmware updates.

4) The D850 supports focus peaking for both HD video and still photography.

  • It isn't available when shooting 4K video, though.

5) The Nikon D850 is primarily a stills camera, but Nikon greatly expanded its video capabilities over previous models.

  • The D850 has very strong features for video recording, but when we asked if they would be positioning the D850 as a go-to camera for primarily video users, they replied that they still consider still photography as the camera's main focus. They did very specifically want to cater to the increasing number of traditionally still shooters who are now also shooting video, though, so treated video recording as a very important use case. (We were interested to learn that dual still/video shooting by professionals is much more common in the US than in other parts of the world. We didn't ask, but are curious why that would be so much the case….)

6) 4K video with no horizontal cropping!

  • One significant feature of the D850 that we discussed with Nikon is its ability to shoot 4K video with no horizontal cropping. This is a big benefit for video shooters!

7) Electronic VR option available for Full HD, crops the frame slightly (unavoidable).

  • When recording Full HD video, the Nikon D850 offers the option of electronic vibration reduction. This is accomplished by using a bit less than the full sensor to create the video image. Then, if the camera moves slightly, the processor can simply shift the area that's being read out, to compensate. To make space on the sensor to do this, the camera will crop the frame slightly when electronic VR is enabled. Nikon didn't have a spec for us; we'll test and report on it when we get a test sample into our lab.

Click here to to read just how excited our resident
pro cinematographer, Jaron Schneider, is about the D850.

8) Reduced-resolution modes don't save buffer space, and actually reduce it and slow down buffer clearing.

  • (We're guessing this is true of all Nikon models, although we haven't tested it recently.) This was a bit of a surprise. We figured that the reduced-resolution modes wouldn't use as much buffer space, so you could get longer bursts when using them. It turns out that the buffer memory captures all the data coming from the sensor, and then the processor crunches it down before storing reduced-resolution data to the memory card. This means that there's no buffer-depth advantage with reduced-resolution modes, and it actually takes a bit longer for the processor to crunch the data before writing it to the card. (In fact, because the data is being cleared out of the buffer more slowly while shooting is going on, buffer capacity is actually somewhat reduced. -- Nikon said it was "only" 200 frames in DX mode :-0)

9) WOW, XQD cards can clear the buffer fast!

  • Given the huge buffer size on the Nikon D850, we wondered how long it would take to clear it to the memory card. The D850 supports the very fast XQD memory cards, so we asked how long it would take to clear the giant buffer when using one of them. After the necessary disclaimers that it depends on the speed of the particular card you're using, YMMV, etc, the Nikon engineers told us that they'd routinely seen the buffer clear to XQD cards in seven seconds(!) We'll obviously be checking this ourselves once we have a lab sample, but if true, this is really astonishingly quick, especially given the huge amount of data involved. Given its fast, capable AF system and this incredible clearing speed, the D850 looks to us like a serious option for sports shooters!

10) The new internal NEF-to-JPEG batch processing option is *fast*!

  • A new feature in the D850 is the ability to select a large batch of NEF RAW files, select the various tweaks and adjustments you want to make to all of them, and then have the camera convert them to JPEGs itself. Because it can use the camera's dedicated image processor to do so, it can do this many times faster than even a very capable desktop computer. Nikon advertised this as being "17x faster" than PC-based NEF conversion, but that begged the question of 17x faster than exactly what computer, with what software. We asked how long these conversions actually took, in terms of clock time. The answer was that 1000 images took 25 minutes to convert. Hmm, OK, 25 minutes sounds like a while, but doing the math, we realized that this amounted to only 1.5 seconds per image - that's seriously fast (!)

  • (A side note: We thought this might encourage more sports shooters to also shoot RAW format, but it turns out the Nikon engineers were thinking mainly of time-lapse users when they created the feature.)

11) The Nikon D850 uses a backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor, but not for the reason you might think.

  • The D850 uses the first backside-illuminated sensor in Nikon's DSLR lineup, but when we asked about it, it turned out the reason wasn't to provide better low-light performance (its pixels are big enough that there's not much gain in ISO speed by moving the wiring to the back of the chip), but rather to give more flexibility in the chip's wiring, to achieve the high speed they were after. Interesting...

12) The Nikon D850 should be a significant step up, in terms of high-ISO noise and image quality.

  • While they didn't attribute it to the BSI sensor, Nikon told us that the D850 should produce the same image quality (both JPEG and RAW) at twice the ISOs as the D810, a full-stop improvement. That is, the D850 at its top "native" ISO of 25,600 should deliver the same image quality as the D810 did at ISO 12,800. If true, that's a pretty significant improvement; we can't wait to get our hands on a sample to check it out!

13) Nikon designed the D850 sensor themselves.

  • While Nikon contracts with a silicon foundry to actually manufacture the chips, Nikon confirmed that the D850's sensor is entirely their own design, vs. an off-the-shelf unit from a sensor manufacturer.

14) Nikon says dynamic range will be as good or better than that of the D810, despite the higher pixel count.

  • They've stated that there is no trade-offs to be made in balancing dynamic range at base ISO vs. higher ISOs, and that this sensor resolution represents the optimum balance for performance and image quality.

15) Adding the optional battery grip with EN-EL18 battery boosts the maximum shooting speed by 2 frames/second.

  • Nikon reports the higher voltage from the EN-EL18 battery pack allows an increase in overall shooting speed, enabling the shutter and mirror to move faster.

16) Focus-shift mode for bug photography :-)  

  • Based on demand from macro and insect photographers, the D850 now has a special focus shift mode. This directs the camera to shoot a number of images, shifting focus slightly between each one. The camera can't "stack" these itself, but it's easy to use focus-stacking software on your computer once the necessary shots are all captured. Talking to the engineers, some of them had apparently admired the ultra-closeup focus-stacked bug pictures seen around the internet, so just decided to build this feature into the camera. This was interesting to us, to think that the engineers just said "hey, this is such a cool effect -- let's help people do this!" -- rather than a more "corporate" approach of looking at market segments, holding focus groups, etc, etc. It seemed like a cool thing, wasn't hard to implement, so they just went ahead and built it into the camera.

17) Focus-shift settings decoded!  

  • Because focus and depth of field depends on the lens you're using and the distance to the subject, it's often confusing how large a step you should specify between shots, when using a feature like the D850's focus shift option to capture images for use in focus stacking. In the case of the D850, you can choose a number from 1 to 10, and we asked the Nikon engineers what those units corresponded to. The answer was that the finest gradation (a setting of 1) equates to a focus step equal to the lens focal length divided by 30. So with a 100mm lens, the smallest step would be a distance of 3.3mm, and the largest one 30mm.

18) Same gorgeous tilting touch screen monitor as the D500.

19) Electronic first-curtain option now available in "Quiet Shutter Release" modes (Q and QC), without requiring mirror lockup.

  • An all-electronic shutter is employed in Silent Live View modes.

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