I just bought the new Nikon D850, here’s why

I’m rarely excited at spending $3300, but I just pre-ordered the new Nikon D850 from B&H (the camera is expected to start shipping sometime in September, but initial demand will probably be high).  I already have the outstanding Nikon D810.  Do I need to upgrade?  Absolutely not.  I already have an incredible Nikon camera, D810.  But as a professional landscape photographer, I place a lot of value on cameras, lenses, and computers to help me produce high quality work efficiently.  The D850 promises improvements for both the quality and efficiency of my work.  I thought I’d share my thoughts here on the value of this camera from the perspective of a landscape photographer (but have also tried to add comments about other uses, as I have done quite a bit of wedding and portrait work in the past as well).

Why am I upgrading from the D810?  What makes the cost worth it to me?

  • Better low light image quality.   The back-side illuminated (BSI) is more efficient at gathering light.  I need to see some real world shots to really check this, but it should be a serious improvement for shooting the Milky Way and other high ISO scenarios.  I’ll still be stacking images, but I should get less noise and better ability to use faster shutter speeds.  This should be especially helpful for capturing the Aurora Borealis (as it moves and you can’t shoot too long nor stack exposures most of the time).  Nikon has enough confidence to increase their highest native ISO by one stop.
  • Tilt-LCD.  I love shooting at very low angles, especially with water as a reflection.  But I don’t particularly low laying down in the dirt or mud to compose the shot.  And I’ve got a few pairs of ripped pants that were snagged on sharp rocks doing so.
  • Touch LCD.  This looks like a nice way to work faster, especially for using “pinch to zoom” to check image sharpness.
  • Better auto-focus through the viewfinder.  The D850 inherits the excellent auto-focus system from the D5, which can focus in light as dark as -4ev (2 stops darker than the D810’s -2ev).   While I often use live view, I still use focus through the viewfinder quite a lot, and greatly appreciate improved accuracy, especially for blue hour shots.  The new system also offers greater coverage to focus on off-center subjects, more than 6 times as many of the more accurate “cross type” AF points, and 15 (vs 1) sensors that work on f/8 lenses.
  • Automated capture for focus stacking.  I love focus stacking, and I hate it.  I love how it lets me dramatically improve the quality of scenes with close foreground elements, but capturing and processing a series of images with different focal distances is a pain.  The D850’s built-in support is a welcome improvement to help simplify the image capture.  I expect this will save me time with focusing and shooting too many frames due to guesswork.  And should increase my confidence that I have successfully stepped through the full focusing range.  That said, there are always some tricky scenarios, and I expect I’ll still be doing some manual work (especially when a near subject is directly in front of a distant one, which causes pixel overlap issues that aren’t necessarily solved by simple focus stacking).
  • 26% more pixels (45.7 vs 36.3 megapixels in the D810).  Because megapixels represent area (height x width), the linear increase in resolution is only 12%.  It’s not a mind-blowing increase, but I appreciate the potential for extra quality, enlargement, or cropping.  I print a lot of images at 40×60″, so this represents a minor but real benefit to me.  On the flip side, it’s going to mean I hit the 4GB limit for TIF files more frequently (due to use of multiple layers and masks), so I hope Adobe adds support for viewing PSB files in Lightroom soon, or I’ll have to start using Bridge or some other solution to navigate through my images.

 

What else looks interesting to me?  The following are either benefits that I’m not 100% confident I’ll get from this camera, or of lesser important.  I’ll update when I get real experience with the camera.

  • Improved Dynamic Range?  I’m confident this has been improved, but with Nikon not doing much to quantify it, I suspect the gains are smaller than I’d like to see.  Every little bit is welcome.  Improved dynamic range may help me reduce shadow noise and motion alignment issues from blending multiple exposures (though I’ll still be blending, which I routinely do with single RAW files).  If this beats expectations, it would immediately jump up on my list of reasons to buy.
  • Higher resolution LCD.  The new LCD has doubled “dot resolution”.  I can’t tell from Nikon’s marketing material if this means the linear or total resolution has been doubled.  Either way, it should be a noticeable jump.  I really hope this improves my ability to manually focus and check focus during playback.  If that pans out, this would immediately jump up pretty high on my list of reasons to buy.
  • Faster image review (I hope).  Nikon claims 17x faster RAW processing.  The new EXPEED5 processor and XQD cards should offer faster playback, and the demo videos I’ve seen seem to suggest that images will playback faster.  It also looks like it can zoom into the image more quickly to review sharpness.  Both are critical for me to quickly check my work in the field and get back to shooting in changing light conditions.
  • Compatible with EN-EL15 batteries from the D810 (from what I’ve read).  Nice to know that I likely don’t have to spend hundreds of extra dollars on new batteries, or carry extra batteries and chargers when I bring my D810 body as a backup to the D850.  And it offers more shots on a single charge (which should be especially nice for shooting the Milky Way, where I run through batteries quickly with multiple long exposures and continuous live view).
  • Illuminated buttons.  Should be great for shooting the Milky Way.  And even better, may mean fewer neighboring photographers turn on shot-wrecking headlamps.
  • Faster shooting due to higher frame rate and larger image buffer.  I still shoot some sports and portraits, so the ability to shoot bursts of images without waiting will be nice.  The D850 can take nearly twice as many shots as the D810 before filling up the buffer, and it supports 7-9 frames per second (versus 5 for the D810 in full resolution or 7 cropped).  Getting to 9 frames per second requires the MB-D18 external grip ($400 from Nikon, though I expect Meike and Vello to produce much cheaper 3rd party options quickly) and a Nikon EN-EL18b battery (about $150).  With a buffer that holds 51 14-bit RAW files, you’re probably vastly overshooting if you ever hit the end of the buffer (that would be over 7 seconds of continuous shooting at 7fps).  I’ll probably get a grip for shooting vertical portraits, but I won’t be getting the battery (I’ll never need miss that speed, especially given both cost and the fact that it’s another charger and a battery that only fits in the grip, not in the camera itself).
  • Focus peaking for manual focusing while in live view or shooting video.  I haven’t found the quality of this feature to be helpful in the Sony a7Rii, so I hope the D850 is more clear.
  • Improved RGB meter for more accurate exposure.
  • Reduced vignetting with wide-angle lenses?  That’s one of the promises of the BSI sensor, but I’m not sure how it will work in practice with my newer wide angle lenses.
  • Built-in Bluetooth connectivity and Snapbridge.  I’m not really sure yet what this means.  Nikon (and most camera companies) have a poor track record of creating great software, and Bluetooth is much slower than WiFi.  But I am hopeful that either Nikon or a 3rd party can turn this new hardware into a great way to remotely control the camera.  This likely won’t support long distances, so mountain-top selfies will probably still require something like a Pocket Wizard to trigger the camera.
  • Improved mirror/shutter design (including a shutter counter-balance).  Initial reports suggest that this significantly reduces issues with internal vibration affecting image quality.
  • Better weather sealing and no more pop-up flash.  The removal of the flash gets rid of one more area where water and dust can enter the camera.  And since I’ve never used the popup flash due to the awful quality of light, I’m very happy that it won’t be accidentally opening and snagging on my camera bags any more.  I’m surprised I’ve never broken one of these off my old cameras.
  • Larger viewfinder.
  • Nikon’s Auto AF Fine Tune.  Not a perfect system (can’t tune multiple focal lengths on zoom lenses or correct off center), but a much welcome addition to improve focusing accuracy for wide aperture shots.

 

What else is in there?  (Stuff that I don’t personally care about, but others probably do)

  • 4k and slow motion HD video.  I may care about this before I’m done using the D850, but I don’t do much cinematic work, and don’t expect I’ll be shooting and editing 4k video anytime soon.  Serious video shooters will likely love this, as 4k video is really starting to gain traction (somewhere around 25% of US homes now have 4k TVs, and 4k computer monitors are growing quickly).  If you’re into serious video, do some more digging, as there’s a lot more than I’m covering here.
  • 8k timelapse.  I don’t do much timelapse, and you can generate 8k from shooting still if you had to.  I’m sure timelapse photographers will greatly appreciate this.
  • Silent shooting in live view.  If I were still shooting weddings, this would be absolutely awesome.  Should also be great for wildlife photographers.
  • Radio flash control.  I wish I had this years ago while shooting weddings.  All I ever wanted was manual flash power control from the camera.  As it is, I have plenty of legacy speedlights and don’t use them enough to upgrade.
  • Medium RAW files.  I don’t see a need to shoot low resolution, but if you do, you can now have more options to do so with all the quality of RAW.

 

Any downsides or missing features?

  • I’m not thrilled at the cost of having to replace my compact flash cards with QXD cards.  I realize that compact flash is basically a dead technology and QXD is much faster, so hopefully this newer card format becomes more of a standard that I can keep using for a long time.  I just consider it part of the cost of upgrading.  I’m buying a couple of 128GB Lexar cards.  That should help cover my needs at the most reasonable cost.  I plan to use the QXD purely as a backup, so I’m not going to bother getting a card reader at this point (as I can use the D850 as a card reader if needed).  That’s more or less what I’ve been doing with my Compact Flash cards for years.
  • I wish there was true built-in WiFi support.  If you’re willing to drop $1000 and add a bulky WT-7A adapter, you can get that with the D850.  That doesn’t sound like the simple solution I’d like for remote operation.
  • I wish the minimum ISO could have been pushed lower (same 32 as the D810, but probably with better quality).  The less I have to use ND filters for slow shutter speeds, the better.
  • Same electronic front curtain design (still only available in Mup mode).  I wish it was automatically supported with exposure delay mode as well.  I don’t expect this to have much impact on image quality, but if Nikon sees a benefit, why not make it available more easily?
  • No GPS.

For a summary, see Nikon’s nice head to head comparison of the D850 vs D810.

If you don’t already have a camera, the $500 extra over the D810 seems like a no-brainer to me.  If you do have a good camera, it really comes down to your needs and budget.

These are just my impressions based on what I’ve read, but I’m ready to buy now based on the specs and Nikon’s track record in making meaningful gains.  I’m sure my opinions will change as I get hands on with the new camera.  If you’ve seen any information which adds to or contradicts my understanding here, please comment below.  I’ll share more details about my experience once I’ve had a chance to use the camera.

Update:  I’ve posted the exact settings you should use to optimize the D850 for landscape photography.

Update: I’ve since posted a detailed review of how the camera performs.

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