The D850 is like a cross between a medium format and sports camera. And that’s no hyperbole. DxOMark ranks its 47.5MP sensor 3rd in the world, (marginally) surpassed by only the medium format Hasselblad X1D and Pentax 645Z. Its AF system module is the very same one found in the no-compromise sports camera, the Nikon D5. If fact, it’s rather tempting to just call it the best camera you can buy and conclude the review. But alas, tech decisions are never that simple – Sony just released the A7R III, a camera whose performance and cost is identical to the D850. So it is only right that we compare the A7R III to the D850.
- Image quality
- Fast autofocus
- Excellent button placement
- Battery life
- Average video capabilities
- “Only” 9fps continuous shooting
Long story short, it’s the best you can get in a DSLR. The very fact that the D850’s full frame sensor scores just 2 points shy of a medium format camera costing thrice as much is testament to its ability. The camera renders unbelievably clean images at nightmarish ISO values. RAW photos are wonderfully malleable – pushing the exposure 3 to 4 stops in post is no issue at all. In fact, I couldn’t find any difference between pushing the ISO in camera and bumping up the exposure in post. Dynamic range, too, is so wide that it can’t be fully captured in a single JPEG by Lightroom, despite maxing out the sliders.
The only other full frame camera that compares is the A7R III. In fact, they’re identical – both are rated 100 points on DxOMark, save for some subtle differences, covered in depth on DxOMark. Scroll down to the bottom of the article to see some photos shot with the D850.
Built Like a Tank…
The D850 has all the rugged features we have come to expect at this price point. A full metal body which is dust and water resistant. I took it on a trek through some light rain and it did just fine – I was the only one complaining about the rain, not the camera. Interestingly, Imaging Resource did a did a comparison with the A7R III and found the Sony to be less water resistant than expected. So if you envision yourself shooting in foul weather then the D850 might be a better choice.
With the battery installed, the body weighs in at 1005g, 115g more than the 5D IV and a whole 348g more than the A7R III. Whether you prefer the added girth or a lighter camera is personal, but the D850 does feel great in the hand. I had no problems carrying it around for the whole half day trek through the jungle.
…But Handles Like a Sports Car
Not only is it comfortable, but it is also rather intuitive. The first time I took the camera out was to cover a wedding reception, intending to use it as a secondary camera, just to try a few shots and see what the camera was capable of. I didn’t intend to use it much, because I didn’t have any fast Nikon lenses, and also because the last time I touched a Nikon was a D750, 2 years ago. A wedding shoot isn’t a good time to learn about a camera, but lo and behold, by the halfway point I was comfortable enough to shoot the bulk of the proceedings on the D850, a camera I had barely known for half a day.
The button placement is well thought-out, and the touchscreen further augments the ease of use. The layout is similar to the D810 and allows you to change almost any setting – from white balance to mirror lock up to image quality – by pressing a button and rotating a dial – no more digging through the menus frantically. Also worth mentioning are the illuminated buttons for shooting in the dark.
Although the A7R III does have a lot of buttons on hand, you need to properly set up and customise all the controls, and remember them to reach the same level of efficiency. And rightfully so, because the camera has a lot more video settings to accommodate too (more on that later).
All in all, I could feel the sports camera in the D850’s DNA – the handling is undeniably snappy and polished.
High Speed Shooting
On that note, the D850 maintains a respectable 7fps in continuous drive mode and can shoot at 9fps with the battery grip attached. That is still slower than the A7R III’s 10fps, but as a concession the D850’s buffer is good for 51 RAW frames rather than A7R III’s 28. To me, though, 7fps is plenty unless you are shooting the Olympics.
World class AF and AE
A tell-tale sign of Nikon’s intention of making the camera fast is the autofocus. The D850’s 153-point AF system is the same one found in the D5, and like that camera, the D850 has a dedicated chip to process AF. Tracking (or 3D Tracking, as Nikon calls it) is second to none – it locks onto your subject and just stays on it. It doesn’t explicitly have the Eye AF of Sony’s A7R III, but in Nikon’s own words, “The AF system makes it possible to achieve pinpoint focus on a small area such as an athlete’s eye…”. And the AF system, rated up to -3EV (with the centre point to -4EV) doesn’t go down even when the lights do. The low light performance is amazing – in my time with the camera, I didn’t get a single shot with missed focus – and keep in mind that I shot a wedding reception indoors. Granted, I did not have the chance to really squeeze the AF system by shooting with fast primes, but I did have to rack between near and far shots in split seconds, and not once did the D850 let me down.
Colour and light metering are generally accurate (and are in fact very good), though I did see some occasions where they just went out of whack under challenging circumstances.
That being said, there is a slew of custom features and options that I didn’t get the time to play around with and setting those up properly may have helped.
One custom feature that I did discover in my limited time with the camera is the ability to temporarily switch to a different metering/AF mode with the press of a button. It works like an emergency button, for example you can set it to centre point focusing, so that if the tracking goes awry you can quickly engage the centre point for a critical shot. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the tracking was flawless, and the only time I got to press that panic button was when the camera focused on the foreground of a sub-framed shot. Needless to say, it worked perfectly.
Capable of 4K 30p output, the D850 is a pretty good video camera, in fact it’s probably tied with the 5D III as the best video DSLR to date. But that isn’t the D850’s focus, and here its abilities are eclipsed by the A7R III, which offers a host of convenient features for videographers. The D850 is fine if you occasionally shoot video, but if video is important to you, then A7R III is the clear choice. The trade-off, however, is that the shooting experience for stills is much more seamless on the D850 because that is where the focus is.
It’s worth a mention here that the D850 is one of the most energy efficient cameras out there, rated for a whopping 1840 shots. In comparison, the 5D Mark IV is rated for 900 shots, and the A7R III, for 650. That alone may be a deciding factor for some.
The D850 body retails in for S$4999 in Singapore. At first glance that seems like a hefty price, but when you consider what it’s up against, it’s quite astonishing how Nikon managed to keep costs so low. It is just shy of the image quality of the Hasselblad X1D but at 1/3 the price and maintains the world class AF performance of the D5 (and a respectable fps rate) at half its price. But more than anything, you must keep in mind that it does both of this simultaneously. However, it loses out to the A7R III, which is marginally cheaper at S$4699.
So that’s it folks. That’s what the best DSLR in the world looks like. If you’re in the market for a no-compromise, do-everything camera, you will have to choose between the D850 and the mirrorless A7R III. The differences between them are so subtle that you honestly couldn’t go wrong with either one. The D850 would be suited more for pure photography though, especially those photographing action and time-sensitive moments because it is just so quick to operate (save for the burst speed).
Be sure to view the photos at their full 47.5 megapixels to really get an idea on what this camera is capable of.