The new Nikon D850 is hands-down the best landscape photography camera I have ever used. Unreal good. But probably not for the reasons you might expect. The image quality is definitely better in a few areas, but that isn’t the big story. What makes this camera so exciting is that it helps you do your best work. You can expect to work more quickly, get more images in proper focus, and even improve composition with the tilt-screen.
Before diving into the review, please note that this is written from the perspective of a landscape photographer. That means a focus on dynamic range, dark conditions, lots of shooting with live view on a tripod, etc. I haven’t yet tested continuous autofocus on fast-moving subjects, and don’t particularly care about certain features like frame rate. I’ve tried to make some comments around those areas, but this review is intended to help photographers who want to use this camera primarily for subjects like landscapes, architecture, and cityscapes.
How does the D850 improve over the D810?
The following are all what I would consider legitimate reasons that landscape photographers should consider upgrading from a D800/D810 to the D850. The star of the show is definitely the improved focusing.
- Incredible capability to shoot in low light. If you shoot the blue hour or stars, I would upgrade for this reason alone.
- Autofocus works in extremely dark conditions where the D810 fails (so dark that I can hardly see anything through the viewfinder). This includes focusing through the viewfinder and with Live View, as both are vastly improved. I have been able to accurately auto-focus the camera in the dark on trees 30-50 feet away using only a 300 lumen headlamp. Unless your image has no foreground at all, it’s possible to auto-focus in nearly any condition. I’ve even used it to accurately autofocus an f/4 lens view live view with a 10-stop ND filter and full cloud cover at the end of the day (shortly before sunset).
- Manual focus is easier in dark conditions. The live view display is more detailed and much less noisy than the D810. It’s a massive improvement, and I think just as impressive as the updated autofocus. You can literally see more clearly with the live view than your own eyes in these situations.
- Noise in the live view display has been drastically reduced, making it much easier to visually confirm manual focus.
- The illuminated buttons are very helpful, especially for playback review of images to confirm focus.
- And if you’re shooting people, there’s no need to blind or distract them with an AF assist lamp. I would have loved to have this camera back when I was shooting wedding receptions, where I missed a lot of shots and looked like a clown with a bright light on the dance floor (my lack of dance moves only making matters worse).
- Note, however, that the image noise at high ISO is relatively similar between the D810 and D850 (see the comparison image below at ISO 6400).
- Color in the shadows is dramatically improved. I’ve been dealing with magenta color casts so long that I’d practically forgotten how much I dislike them. The color rendition in the shadows (or underexposed images if you don’t have a choice) just looks much better.
- That said, nearly black shadows do still have a magenta cast, which may show up in the corners if you use vignette correction and boost shadows. Trouble stars when Lightroom tells you the image has single-digit RGB values or L values of 0 or 1. The solution is to make sure you capture a brighter frame, which is a good idea in this situation as you’d be dealing with noise on any camera. Alternatively, you could apply some color correction, depending no the scene and how you wish to process it.
- To be clear, the shadows are better even in these edge cases, I’m just noting that you can end up with a more obvious color cast due to a mixed shadow color if you try to restore too much in extremely under-exposed shadows. The fact that you can see anything at all in these areas is a testament to the capabilities of this camera.
- Long exposures appear to be very clean. I shot a single 5-minute exposure at ISO64 (in the dark with the lens cap on for a truly black frame). There wass almost no hot pixel noise. The hottest pixel in the scene was at a threshold of 44/255, but there were almost none over 20 and most were under 10. Unless that one “hot” pixel occurred over a deep shadow area, there’s little chance I’d find it in a true long exposure image. This was at 48F (9C), and I would expect more noise if you are shooting in hot conditions, but I think this simple test is highly encouraging. I’m pretty sure it outperforms the D810 in this regard, and certainly outperforms the a7Rii (even with the latest firmware that fixed the truly awful initial hot pixel issues on that camera). If you find any hot pixels with this camera, they should be minimal and easy to fix.
- The tilt-screen is extremely useful for composing from low angles. I find myself using it on a majority of my shots. After getting used to having this feature, the D810 feels clunky and frustrating to me. It’s faster and easier to create engaging wide angle compositions from a low perspective. Nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it’s a very welcome improvement. The hinges feel robust, and I expect the camera will stand up to normal use in rough conditions, so long as you take reasonable care.
- The increased resolution is very nice. If you only post online, this won’t matter. But if you print at relatively large sizes, this very well could improve the quality of your prints. I’m happy to have the extra pixels for 40×60″ or larger art.
- Touch screen is great for quickly reviewing images. Swiping or sliding to scroll, and pinch-to-zoom, are much faster than using the buttons on the camera. This makes image review much less tedious.
- Touch screen autofocus is quick and accurate. And it even works as expected when the focus priority is set to “release” (ie, even though you can fire the shutter button without being focused, the tap-to-focus will achieve focus before firing the shutter).
- The new focus stacking (“focus-shift”) function is very nice and relatively straight-forward to use. It makes the field-work faster and allows you to get consistent changes in focusing distance to help avoid over-shooting or creating a gap in focusing
- Note that this merely helps capture multiple images at different distances. It is a way to automate focus stacking, which you could do with any camera. And post-processing these images is no different than post-processing focus stacks from any camera (the D850 does not combine the images for you).
- Mirror lock-up has been improved. In live view, the D810 requires you to press the shutter button twice to take a picture. This makes it hard to time critical action, like a wave crashing into rocks. The double-clicking not only creates a lag, but the screen is blacked out. With the D850 in live view, Mup mode takes an image as soon as you press the shutter button. This makes more sense (since the mirror is already locked up), and avoids the blackout before the shooting starts. And when not in live view, the D850 now indicates “rdy” on the top LCD when the mirror is locked up and ready to go.
For a detailed list of recommend settings for optimal shooting with the D850, and how to configure focus-shift, AF Fine Tune, and Snapbridge, please click here.
Of course, upgrades typically entail the need to update many system components. Here’s a quick rundown on what you can expect:
- Although it means I need to buy some new memory cards, I think the migration to QXD makes sense. It offers much faster reads and writes, and should be a standard that sticks around for a long time. I purchased the Lexar carts, but they are now discontinued. The only game in town are the Sony XQD cards (I recommend the G-series 128GB for fast writes and good price per GB), but thankfully they have a good reputation. Just a couple of these should serve as an effective backup for numerous SD cards. And a card reader can be considered optional, as you can download images by connecting the camera to a computer (though the D850 only offers PTP and not Mass Storage connectivity, meaning that you will not be able to open the card like an external drive without a reader, but you can certainly download the images to Lightroom, as soon as it is updated to support the D850).
- If you use them, you’ll need a new Really Right Stuff bracket for the D850. The D850 is a little wider behind the tripod socket, which creates interference with the lip of the old bracket and ultimately creates a lot of rotational force when mounted that I believe could damage the camera. You may hear that it is compatible, but I would strongly suggest buying a new bracket designed for the dimensions of this camera.
- While the EN-EL15a battery is not new, I do appreciate that the D850 upgrade is seamless from the D800 and D810. You can use either the old black (EN-EL15) or the new gray (EN-EL15a) battery in any of these cameras. So no need to worry about the cost of batteries (or chargers). And the new battery offers a claimed 50% increase in the number of shots you can take on a single charge (hard for me to compare, as I tend to kill batteries with live view and haven’t done a true test, but it seems better to me).
- If you want to shoot at 9 frames per second, you’re going to have to pony up for the EN-EL18 battery and charger, and deal with a mix of battery types (unless you only use the battery in the grip and not the camera). Probably not worth it for most photographers.
- The 10-pin connector is the same, so you can use the same MC-36 or MC-36a remote release cables.
- With the improved resolution, some lenses may start to show their limits. In general, you probably do not need to replace any lenses (they will work at least as well as they did with 36 megapixels). I’m a little more leery of my 24-120mm lens, but will be keeping it for now.
What else might you like?
Here’s a quick rundown on things that are improved, but I don’t consider to be of much value. I’m happy to have them, but they aren’t reasons I’d give for upgrading if you are a strictly landscape photographer. Depending on what you do, these may be things you appreciate.
- Silent shutter makes the camera dead quiet for shooting around people or wildlife. No sound at all when taking the picture (of course, there is a mirror sound when you start and stop live view itself). Update (04-08-18): I just tried shooting in silent mode 1 for a private concert under incandescent lighting. During silent shooting, the sensor is not reading the same was as normal shooting (such as Qc). With shutter speeds faster than 1/50s, 8 distinct lighting bands show up in the long direction of the image. I was shooting primarily at 1/160s of a second and would say the images were close to unusuable for anything with a solid background (such as walls) that would reveal the pattern. It gets much worse with faster shutter speeds. So I would avoid silent shooting under any sort of flickering light (such as incandescent) if you cannot use shutter speeds 1/50s or slower. Switch to Qc for better image quality and a relatively quiet shutter.
- The silent shutter also avoids shutter cycling when shooting timelapses and focus stacks. There has been much hype about this camera offering “8k timelapse”, which seems a little silly since the D800 and D810 already offer enough resolution to do that and the D850 will not create a movie larger than 4k on its own (you just get stills that you can turn into an 8k movie on a computer). But if you shoot timelapses (at any resolution), the D850 is going to be much more durable, as it won’t endure nearly so much shutter cycling. That’s going to reduce the risk of your camera wearing out
, and increase its resale value later with a lower shutter count. Correction: I assumed the metadata would reflect the mechanical shutter actuations. But have since tested that, and it unfortunately does not. The “ImageNumber” metadata increments by 1 for every image, including regular use of silent mode and silent mode during “focus shift” shooting.
- Focus peaking is very clear/clean. I was prepared to be a bit disappointed here, as I find the focus peaking nearly useless on the a7Rii, but it’s very clean and accurate on the D850. I’ve been truly impressed in the cases where it is available (but the limits are significant). That said, you need to use it correctly, here are a few tips:
- While it is helpful for shooting stills, it is probably best thought of as a feature to quickly find approximate focus when you want to be precise. Manual focusing from the display is more precise than from focus peaking indicators. But it is very nice for shooting video.
- You can use it zoomed in a couple of clicks (focus peaking is not be displayed when the live view is zoomed all the way in).
- Focus peaking is sensitive to the settings you use in Picture Control (particularly sharpening and clarity) and peaking color is important for many reasons (white and yellow look noisy in the dark and shadows). Be sure to see my recommended settings.
- Focus peaking is easier to interpret when zoomed in a bit (ie, a bit more accurate).
- Focus peaking is sensitive to the size of the detail. For example, peaking clearly shows focus on text from a distance, but may not show peaking when you get closer to the text (as the transition isn’t as dramatic at the pixel level with that extra detail).
- Unfortunately, there is a long list of conditions which prevent the use of focus peaking: 4K, electronic stabilization, Slo-Mo mode, or with zebra strips (highlight warnings). Worse yet is that when one of these modes conflicts with another, the option is just grayed-out (see “what could be better” below).
- Fn2 button offers one more programmable button, which is very nice. I very much like the ability to mark an image with stars or rejected in camera, but my experience so far is that it isn’t recognized by Adobe Camera RAW (I hear it works on other Nikon cameras, so I’d expect we’d see support in time). I’d call it outstanding if it was more flexible in how it could be programmed (specifically if both it and the other programmable buttons could be programmed to any menu command directly, but you can only do one). I’ve programmed Fn2 to “focus shift”, as you can access the star rating via the “i” button during playback.
- AF Auto Tuning helps improve the accuracy of focusing large aperture and telephoto lenses via the optical viewfinder. Manual tuning was of course possible in the D810, but this simplifies the process quite a bit.
- Remote shooting via Snapbridge (Bluetooth/WiFi). This one is right on the hairy edge of qualifying as a real benefit due to poor user interface (see comments below). But being able to remotely trigger the camera without carrying any other gear is a nice benefit. I expect to use it for the occasional landscape where I want to include myself for perspective, or for group “selfies” for personal use.
- Max frame rates have been improved to 7fps (or up to 9fps with a battery grip and an EN-EL18 battery). Personally, I’ll probably almost never use this, but great for people shooting sports and wildlife. With the shooting speed, deep buffer, and new auto-focus system; this is getting awfully close to a camera that allows you to have it all when it comes to action photography.
- The larger buffer holds roughly 2X as many images at highest quality, which means you can capture a lot more frames at high speed. I used to hit the buffer constantly on the D800, the D810 was drastically better, and I don’ think I’ll ever hit it again with this camera.
- Improved video. 4k (no cropping), slow-mo (1080 at 120fps), focus peaking, electronic vibration reduction (not supported with focus peaking, 4k or slow-mo). Auto-focus performance is not going to live up to everyone’s expectations. The camera’s audio is still mostly good as a way to sync audio from external mics, it’s too noisy. So, there are nice gains on the video front, but the D8xx series remains a monster of a stills camera with some very nice video capability.
- Some people may be concerned about the removal of the popup flash, but it has some benefits. It adds almost no use (direct lighting is awful, and even in commander mode for external flashes wasn’t as good as other 3rd party options in most situations). It would pop up accidentally and risk getting broken. And it created one more path for dust and water to get into the camera. Buh-bye.
I’ve left out the improved viewfinder, as I personally don’t find it’s really all that much better (particularly as someone who wears glasses). It’s very good, but I wouldn’t say it offers much over the D810.
One more comment. The colors on the D850 are significantly differently from those on the D810 in certain situations. Most of the time, it isn’t something I noticed. But I was shooting one relatively colorful sunset and kept shooting some clouds long after the color was almost completely gone (the clouds looked gray to my eyes). Yet the live view on the camera continued to show significant red colors in the clouds. I was surprised, but the result was actually very beautiful. And the more vibrant colors show through in the RAW file when converted with Adobe Camera RAW, so it isn’t just the camera’s playback. Could be that Nikon is trying to catch up to Canon (which I’ve heard from several experienced shooters offers better color), or perhaps adjusting for a shifting customer base (the D810 wasn’t nearly the action/portrait camera the D850 is, and will likely get used in different situations). I don’t see any downsides so far, but it’s just worth noting. So far, this seems to be a very good thing for landscapes. I’ll be paying attention to this as I continue to shoot in a variety of conditions.
What could be better?
I really can’t overstate how amazing this camera is. It is definitely the best camera I have ever used. That said, nothing is perfect, and I believe there are several opportunities to make an amazing camera even better.
- Keep iterating the best parts: lower ISO, expanded dynamic range, and lower noise at high ISO. While the D850 is already world class for all of these, there is still a lot of benefit to be gain by improving further (not a complaint at all about this camera, it just needs to be noted that these are huge opportunities). Lower ISO reduces the need for neutral density filters, expanded dynamic range is the best way to improve image quality, and lower high ISO noise is incredibly beneficial for night and other low-light or high-speed photography. Not a small request, but immensely valuable. Improving any of these by at least 1-2 stops would make a worthy upgrade in the future.
- Focus stacking should support exposure bracketing. Landscape photographers typically want to expand dynamic range (or protect against exposure error). And if you create separate stacks for different exposures, you may have trouble blending exposures that don’t have exactly the same focus distance. This can be managed, but it reduces the ease of use factor this is intended to address, and is a serious miss in an otherwise great new feature. This should be a simple update, so hopefully Nikon might consider it in a firmware update.
- Allow manual shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds (like the D810a). This would eliminate the need to use an remote release in many situations, and make it much faster to setup in the field. This should be a simple update, so hopefully Nikon might consider it in a firmware update.
- The Snapbridge experience needs to be simpler and more useful. After hours of troubleshooting, I’ve found a workflow that seems to work reliably. For detailed instructions and tips on some issues to avoid, please see my article on configuring the D850. But I expect many users will be frustrated. Which is sad, because this could be one of the best features of the camera. Photographers are increasingly using smart phones because they are connected to the internet, and there is no reason a basic connection to the phone can’t be made simple and reliable. The following issues need to be addressed:
- Getting connected should be simple. The simplest setup I’ve been able to figure out takes 12 steps. I could not find a simple overview or video from Nikon to assist. One should be put right into the main screen of the app, because it’s a complex and unique process. Most users will probably not figure it out. The connection process also requires activating WiFi, but takes you to the app settings screen instead (on iOS). It’d be nice if that could be avoided, but if necessary, why not take the user to the correct WiFi settings screen instead?
- Getting connected should be fast. Even after working out exactly how to do it, establishing a connection can take 30 seconds. That’s going to dissuade many users from using their smart phone to download or remotely control the camera as much as they’d like to.
- Connectivity should be maintained or automatically restored (at least for a few minutes) if you lock your phone or switch apps. As it is now, every time you switch out of the app, you have to repeat the connection process.
- The Snapbridge app should offer some basic ability to adjust exposure. Currently, you can only focus and click the shutter. You should be able to change shutter, aperture, and ISO.
- 3rd party support should work without Snapbridge. I have not yet tried qDSLRdashboard (as it does not yet support the D850), but my understanding is that you must establish a connection with the Snapbridge app before using their app. Why can’t 3rd parties just connect directly? Nikon just needs good hardware and a good API (the tools 3rd party developers use to create new apps). Make the platform completely open and amazing things will happen.
- Turn the LCD backlight off while shooting with a black display. If you are shooting in live view in any mode other than Mup, the LCD backlight is active (even though the screen only shows black pixels). It casts enough light to be a little distracting at night if you’re just trying to enjoy the view and probably causes significant drain on the battery. You can work around this by turning off live view or using Mup while shooting, but it would be nice if the black screen simply turned off the same way the D810 does.
- The i, info, and Lv buttons should be illuminated too. It’s easy enough to remember a few buttons, but it would be nice to have these buttons, which control various aspects of live view display.
- Add voice annotation, like the D5. The D5 and D850 are targeting different customers, and voice annotation is not likely going to convince a D5 shopper they should buy the cheaper D850. But D850 users would benefit from it greatly. It’s an excellent option to make some quick notes about exposure bracketing, focus stacking, repeat shots, or just about anything important that happened at the time of the shot. For now, you can simply record a quick video, but it’s clumsy and a waste of file space.
- Allow touch to exit the image review after using touch screen to shoot, so that you didn’t have to tap the shutter button to get back to shooting.
- Allow programmable buttons to be directly assigned to any menu function. The ability to program certain buttons to use the top item in “My Menu” is nice, but it would be better if you could simply program the button to use a specific menu item. This would create a couple of benefits: (1) Remove the clutter of adding a My Menu item you can already access with a button, and (2) allow you to program multiple buttons, since the Pv, Fn1, and Fn2 buttons could all benefit.
- The touch to focus setting icon should be removed from the default live view screens and just put under the “i” menu. Having it overlaid with the grids and level just clutters the screen.
- Focus peaking would be nice to have in autofocus modes, so that you wouldn’t have to switch the autofocus selector back and forth. This would be particularly useful when the camera is set to “back button” focus, as you could seamlessly switch between manual and autofocus without fiddling for the switch on the front. For shooting video, I’d want to hit “AF-ON” to quickly establish initial focus, and then manually tweak focus while recording.
- Image review during continuous shooting should be customizeable. If you shoot any continuous sequence of images, live view will show each image as it is taken (assuming you have image review on). But it is only visible for a very short period of time. Most users would probably be better served by a longer review period), and the option to turn image review on/off during continuous shooting separately from image review for single shooting. For example, you might not want all the images showing up when shooting a timelapse or night sequence, but may prefer to see individual images you shoot otherwise.
- Simplify the menus where possible. For example:
- The camera should indicate why certain features are disabled. When a settings conflict prevents use of a certain feature (such as inability to use electronic VR while recording in 4k resolution), the camera should tell you why the setting is not available. There is a long list of conflicting settings, which makes for significant user confusion when an option has been disabled due to some other menu setting. The current design either grays out the option or provides an error message simply stating that the option is not currently available, leaving the user to try and figure it out. In some cases, the written manual is helpful, but some conflicting settings are not even documented.
- The * marking on custom setup items that have been modified from the default is very helpful, and should be extended to the other menus.
- Move Custom Setup section g (movie control) to the Movie Shooting menu
- Remove the retouch menu (or give users the option to hide this menu). There’s nothing in there that really can’t be done better on a computer or mobile device. Just get wireless connectivity working, and there should be no need for this.
- The “Qual” button can be removed from the camera (put ISO there instead). Almost no one is changing between RAW and JPGs routinely in the field, and they could program a custom button if they really need it.
- If you were viewing the exposure meter / histo in live view before switching to “bulb” exposure, they should be displayed again when you get back to 30s or some other measurable time. This is the same behavior as previous cameras and a very small thing, but would be nice to show the meter when possible unless the user turns it off.
- Focus stacking should return the focus to the initial distance after shooting a sequence. This would make it easier to re-shoot a sequence (even if bracketing were supported, you may still need to re-shoot do to subject movement or other considerations such as a slight change in composition). I appreciate returning to the exact position may be technically difficult/impossible, but getting close would still be helpful.
- It would be nice if the focus stacking function would predict the number of frames that would be shot at the current settings (the number of shots depends on aperture, current focus distance on the lens, and the “focus step width” setting). I imagine there are good technical reasons for this, so it may not be feasible.
Overall, this is one incredible camera. Nikon has managed to deliver a very worthy update to the D810. Should you update? I’d always advocate spending money on your skills, travel, and other factors before a camera, as it probably has less influence on on your ability to create a truly compelling image. But cameras matter too, so it really depends on your needs/wants and budget.
The D850 does not offer dramatically better image quality, but it allows you to do your best work more consistently and easily. There are few situations where you could put a perfectly shot print from the D810 next to a perfectly shot print from the D850 and tell a difference. But if you took a look at 1000 images shot on the D810 vs 1000 images shot on the D850, you’d probably say the overall quality of the portfolio was improved. And was easier to create. It’s a bit like upgrading the photographer, particularly with the ability to get proper focus more reliably in dim light. For me, that’s a very good reason to spend the money to upgrade to this camera. In fact, I like it so much that I might get a 2nd one as my backup body. But as they say, your mileage may vary.
The cost to upgrade from another D800/810 will vary quite a bit depending on your personal situation. If you’re in the US, the body will cost you just $3300, while in the UK you’ll pay the equivalent of $4600 due to regional pricing/VAT. You might be out a few hundred dollars for new memory cards. Possibly need to buy a new bracket to use it on a tripod. If you’re selling your old D810, you should be able to get about $1500-1700 on Craigslist or eBay now. And if you’re a professional who can deduct the expect, your net out of pocket costs might go down 25-28% (or whatever the applicable deduction and tax rate is for you). Which means that a professional in the US might upgrade for as little as about $1500, while a European amateur might be shelling out well over twice that amount to make a similar upgrade from a D810.
This is an upgrade that may make the most sense for D810 professional shooters who want better focus or faster shooting, D810 amateurs who are willing and able to pay a premium for the best possible gear, and D800 shooters who are eager for an upgrade. Of course, this release also means the used market will be full of bargains on old D810s, and that is still an excellent camera. So no matter your budget or needs, your potential options just got a lot better.
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