If any of you are considering a D850 I thought this short review might be useful. I won’t got into the detailed technical specifications as there are dozens of other articles covering them. I came to the D850 from the D750 so I’ll use this as the point of comparison. This is based on about 3000 frames shot on a trip to Mongolia.
46 MP versus 24 MP
The most obvious difference between the D750 and the D850 is the resolution. This is both a blessing and a curse. Obviously the files are larger (55MB versus 28MB using lossless compressed RAW), but to me this didn’t really matter. The ability to crop very hard and still have a high resolution image is a HUGE advantage. I take a lot of sport and action shots and this cropping ability makes a big difference. You can set the camera up to a DX crop to get more reach out of your lens, but to me unless memory space is an issue it makes far more sense to leave it on an FX size and just crop when you need to. If the have a sharp well lit picture you can crop to a 20MP image and I’d challenge anyone to tell the difference at below A4 size.
The downside of the larger resolution image it is much more demanding of the photographer. You can immediately tell if the image is slightly soft, whether this is due to subject movement, camera movement or critical focus. With the first two you need to allow almost a stop more shutter speed than on the D750 to guarantee a sharp shot. This is a genuine issue in low light and sometimes you just need to accept a slightly soft shot that won’t show once you downsize for web or a smallish print. With critical focus this was a real struggle for me. On the D750 I had got away without fine tuning the focus for each lens. I just couldn’t do this on the D850 and I had to go through each lens setting it up for the camera. Even then the acceptable focus at a particularly aperture / focal length becomes narrower than the D750. With a 85mm 1.4, it is tiny. Overall the D850 requires you to step up your game in the creation of a photo. Near enough is no longer good enough. This is not specific to the D850 and I’m sure is the same on Canon, Sony and Fuji’s higher resolution bodies. But I can almost guarantee this will be your number one frustration wiht the camera if you are moving from a lower resolution body and reminded me of moving from a D90 (DX body) to a D750.
ISO and Shutter Speed
Up to ISO 6400 I struggle to tell any difference between the D750 and D850 assuming you are viewing at the same resolution (i.e you will see more noise in the D850 image at 46MP but not once downsized to 24MP). Perhaps at ISO 640 - 1200, I would actually give the advantage to the D750 for processing head room. What the D850 seems to do really well (and I must admit I haven’t back to back tested it, just looked at the files) is very high ISO, well lit shots. I have an ISO 10,000 shot of my daughter that I would not have believed was higher than ISO 1000. You can’t really push this files in processing (hence they need to be well lit) but ISO 25,600 is suddenly actually useful. The advantage of ISO 64 (rather than the D750’s 100) is also significant when using large apertures in bright sunlight, as is the shutter going to 1/8000 (rather than the D750’s 1/4000). The low ISO (sub 100) files also seem more flexible for processing than similar low ISO D750 files. The images are beautifully rendered, and like the d750 come out of camera really flat and without much saturation (unlike my Fuji RAW images).
The button set up is similar to a D500. Overall its fine. I liked being able to change ISO using one hand which is the set up on the D850. I also think once you get used to their PASM implementation it is easier to use than a traditional PASM dial. Having been bought up without touch screen, I effectively never use the one on the D850 but I in an iPhone age it is a must have. I quite like the joystick control of focus. I do have some small gripes, principally that I would like to see a flash button that was in a more obviously place. But when I can be bothered I can set up around these.
Card Set Up
The D850 has an XQD and SD card slots. It recommends a UHS-II SD card rather than the UHS-1. Most people won’t be using either XQD or USH-II on their current cameras and while you can get away with a normal SD card, if you want the full burst and video performance you need the higher grade cards. This makes upgrading an expensive exercise, with 128GB cards costing around $300 - $400. So that’s a $700 investment if you want redundancy. I suspect all new cameras will end up with these higher speed cards, but its something to be aware of!
The autofocus is much better than the D750 (or any other camera I have used. It is significantly faster and is pretty accurate. It is allegedly the same as the D5, but all I know is it is much better. That is not to say it is perfect. At times it tripped up in heavily back lit conditions (where it consistently struggled) and also when using the Sigma 85 1.4. However this Sigma is a lens has a bit of a reputation for not being great at focussing in low light and is also obviously highly critical of accurate focus(at F1.4). Also as previously mentioned the D850 is a tool that is going to highlight your errors. The live view focus works OK, but struggles in low light and is definitely no Sony A9. Overall this is a great sports camera.
I didn’t buy the grip (which gives you 9FPS) but the D850’s 7FPS was a little bit faster than the D750, however, the buffer was enormous and I never exhausted it. If you photograph sports this is a massive benefit. I am forever running out of buffer on the D750 which seems to be about 6 frames!
Bells and Whistles
The D850 has a number of headline gadgets that may be useful for you. Focus Stacking it to a degree automated, but I think it has really been set up for macro photographers rather than landscape photographers. You set the camera on the closest focus and then tell it how many photos you want and the size of the steps it needs to take. However, for a wide angle lens at F16 even the largest step are just too small. When I’m stacking myself I typically only use 4 - 7 shots to get from near to far. As far as I can work out to get from 0.7m to infinity on my Tamron 15-30 takes a minimum of 20 steps on Nikon’s automated programme. Its quicker than doing it myself but generates way more files and I can’t see myself using it with wide-angle lens. However for a macro photographer, or on a long lens (which are the times it is really painful to stack), it would be awesome.
The internal intervelometer is really quite good and is something the D750 just does not have. Other than for bulb mode (i.e. exposures beyond 30secs) or for really complex “holy trinity” time lapses, it is all you need. It even allows smoothing of exposure changes to deal with a changing exposure over time. This is a big step forward for Nikon!
I also loved the electronic shutter. Its totally silent and only works in live view. Its great for sniping shots from cafe tables. It is also pretty much the only way I shoot landscape shots now. Its nice to know you are not racking up the shutter count when you are taking dozen of bracketed images.
I was using the camera in Mongolia in some really tough conditions (-35 degrees). I found autofocus totally failed on a couple of ocassaions and this did not seem to be a lens issue (it happened on different lenses). It was probably the contact between the lens and the body and a simple cleaning may fix it. To put in perspective this was a total of four times over three weeks and was fixed in 10 secs (remove and refit lens).
The camera is better sealed than the D750 but I still got a lot of condensation inside the body moving between cold and warm conditions. There is still a big gap in build quality and weather sealing between a D5 and everything else in the Nikon line (whatever Nikon try and tell you). The one really frustrating issue is that the gits at Nikon have added some software to detect if you are using a genuine Nikon battery. This feels pretty cynical and means that I now have a wide selection of aftermarket lithium paper weights. I assume it is the same technology that unlocks the camera to 9FPS if you buy the grip. Again that feels like a cynically commercial move, particularly as I would love the speed of 9fps but need a camera that is lightweight and portable, so I don't want the extra weight.
You can pick up a new D750 for under AU $2k. The D850 is over AU $5k from any non grey market source. Is the D850 better than the D750. Definitely. Is it twice as good as the D750. Absolutely not. Would the difference between the two matter in 95% of photos. Absolutely not. Would you be better off spending the difference on a lens and sticking with a D750; almost certainly. But, if you crop, if you like sport, or if you want to print really large the D850 offers some significant advantages. It will also make you a better photographer, because you will see you errors more clearly. Now can you all email Nikon and ask them to bring a handful of bodies to Bright Festival of Photography this year so everyone can have a try? Oh and if you want to go to Mongolia give Jess @ Eternal Landscapes a call, she'll sort you out.