The Nikon D850 may look like any standard DSLR, but there are a number of subtle improvements over the D810. The magnesium alloy body is more rugged than ever before and features more O-ring weather sealing. Simply put, this is an extremely well-built camera that had no troubles with dust, heat, and cold weather (no rain on this trip, sadly).
The D850 feels great in the hand. Solid and weighted, but not too heavy. For a full-frame DSLR, it's not that bad shooting hand-held for most of the day unless you're sporting lots of ultra-telephoto glass. That said, I'm not a huge fan of the new grip design, which has been revised to add depth and length. It's a little too angular and rough just under the shutter button and rubbed the skin on my middle finger until it was red (and about to form a callus).
To help with low-light shooting, you can opt to have the camera's buttons light up. Speaking of which, the overall button layout is fantastic, I like that Nikon uses dual control dials (front and back), the rear joystick is useful for setting your focus points, and everything is easy to find. My one note here is that I wish the Video Record button was more thumb accessible than pointer finger accessible.
The D850 features dual memory card slots -- one UHS-II capable SD slot, and one XQD slot. It's funny, some of my colleagues have complained that the D850 needs dual XQD slots because the card format is faster/better than SD cards, while others have clamored for dual SD slots because no one else uses XQD. I personally see this setup as a happy medium, and use the XQD slot for RAW shooting & movie recording, while saving the SD slot for JPEGs and in-camera processed RAW files. Others might recommend redundancy. Up to you.
My second least favorite aspect about day-to-day living with the D850 is the camera's archaic Menu system. To be fair, so many DSLRs are setup this way, and it's understandable that you'd end up with sub-menu after sub-menu after sub-menu because these cameras have so many features and custom settings. Still, if you're switching brands or jump between various camera systems, expect a bit of a learning curve between you learn where all the Easter Eggs are tucked away. It's not bad, mind you, just dense in a way that I hope someone will revolutionize (although Canon and Olympus are making great strides). Then again, if you're a pro or enthusiast with a specialty, you're going to cross this learning curve quickly and know exactly where everything you need is located. Plus, you can use the My Menu feature to make a list of your favorite settings.
DISPLAYS & VIEWFINDERS
In addition to Nikon's "widest & brightest" 0.75x optical viewfinder ever, the D850 also features a 3.2" tilting touchscreen rear LCD display (2.3M dots) with a lot of new touch-functionality that allows you to not only do things like activate the shutter and adjust focus, but also scrub videos during playback. You can also use Focus Peaking in either Live View (for stills) or Full HD video recording to help to achieve sharpness exactly where you need and want.
The optical viewfinder is fantastic. Big, bright, and clear, you can adjust focus to fit your eyes. Under the frame, you can see various settings like metering mode, shutter speed, aperture, current exposure, ISO level, and remain shots. In frame, you'll see various AF points pop up into view. Coupled with the joystick on the back of the body, you never really have to bring your eye up and away from the viewfinder while shooting.
The tilting touchscreen is also quite nice. Sharp, colorful, and clear, the screen itself tilts to full horizontal whether you are shooting low or high above your head. It's in here where you can set up the camera's silent shutter operation to save wear n' tear and also get some candid shots without announcing to the world, "hey I'm a loud photographer!!!"
In terms of exposure accuracy, the screen seems about a stop or two underexposed compared with you see on a calibrated monitor. Meaning, if you use this monitor to judge rather than the camera's metering system and/or histogram, you could end up with brighter-than-necessary footage, so make sure you're using your histogram. The real letdown, when using the screen, is Nikon's lackluster Live View mode and contrast AF system. To be fair, the AutoFocus is accurate, it'll lock on a point with the touch of a finger, or lock-on faces with ease... but then you get the delay as your lens hunts back and forth, squeaking away as it does it. It's slow and noisy and, compared to what Sony and Canon and Olympus are doing today, not very good at all. It's my least favorite D850 feature, to be honest, because everything else about this camera exceeds expectations.
If you shoot mostly stills, you won't really care. But if you're a video-first person, this isn't going to be your main camera.
4K VIDEO RECORDING
Not just aimed at still photographers, the D850 wants to be a multi-media production tool for videographers and filmmakers. It can shoot up to 4K UHD @ 30p or 24p and uses the full sensor width (there's no crop factor to consider with your lenses). If you use the HDMI output rather than internal memory cards for recording, you can capture uncompressed 4:2:2 8-bit 4K UHD footage, which is both great to have, but it would have been better to hit 10-bit to match the HDR capabilities of modern 4K displays.
Though recording internally results in a more consumer-friendly bitrate, I quite liked the Nikon D850's 4K video quality. Colors are accurate, and low-light performance is better than most cameras. There's no S-Log, of course, but you can use the camera's Picture Modes to shoot your video flat and neutral, leaving it ready to be color graded after the fact. The 5D Mark IV has a better AutoFocus system and higher bitrate files, but the motion jpeg codec is less than ideal.
The real bummer with this camera's video performance is that Live View AF system, which is accurate, but slow and, depending on the lens, way too loud. Honestly, you can't touch-focus while recording or let the camera track subjects because it'll hunt and miss and you'll hear the whole mess. But with locked focus, for interviews or B-roll, the actual final product will outperform just about every 2017 camera save for the Sony A9 and Panasonic GH5.
If Nikon could every implement an honest-to-God Live View AF system, like Canon's Dual Pixel or Sony's phase detection system, they would have the best all-in-one cameras out there. Yet, for a stills-focused DSLR, the 4K videos files are manageable and attractive. A flip-out or 180-degree tilting viewfinder would also help for interviews and vlogging.
In Full HD 1080p, the D850 can record up to 60p for native files as well as 120fps for creating in-camera slow motion (the 120fps shots are saved as 24p files for playback). There's also a built-in stereo microphone, inputs for headphones and an external mic, as well as a new audio attenuator to regulate sound levels.
Overall, the in-camera slow motion videos are a LOT of fun and they really slow down the footage, but at a full 120fps, the action can stutter a bit and feel less fluid at times. The new GoPro HERO 6 has a much smaller image sensor, but offers much smoother slow motion.
The in-camera mic is about as good as DSLR mics ever are (aka NOT good), and the audio attenuator liked to record a bit hot with an external mic, but being able to set the levels is nice. Then again, it's a feature buried in the Video sub-menu.
In addition to video capabilities, you can set the D850 to record 8K time-lapses (requires assembling in third-party software) OR 4K time-lapses (in-camera). In fact, there's a new interval timer menu option that will drop all your still image files into a separate folder and file numbering system so you can manage your sequences easier. And there's even a SILENT time-lapse mode that only actuates the shutter for the first frame, then uses the E-shutter for the remainder of your time-lapse. This is great not only for wildlife scenarios, but will also save wear and tear on the shutter itself (time-lapses can be up to 9,999 frames) and battery life.
In a press release, this sounds marvelous and innovated, but it's a touch misleading so let's back up a sec and break down what's really happening. The D850, like most DSLRs, includes a built-in intervalometer or Interval Timer Shooting mode in the Photo Shooting Menu where you can select how many shots you want to capture and how long between each shot. What's great is that you can use the silent mode, send all your RAW or .jpgs to their own folder, and start right from in this submenu. And, if you're shooting in Large, you're shooting at a resolution that exceeds the 8K (7680×4320), which is great because you can zoom and crop to make 8K or 4K movies, but you still have to process these stills outside the camera and it's not really an 8K mode despite what they're advertising. In other words, other than the separate folders, there's nothing magical about 8K time-lapses... But if you're a time-lapse photographer, you're going to love the quiet shooting and saving wear and tear and all those megapixels. To be clear, I'm not a time-lapse expert, but the first demos I've seen are pretty stunning.
4K Time-Lapse is completely separate and accessed via the Movie Shooting Menu, where it's called Time-lapse Movie. Here, you select your interval, shooting time, and frame rate up to 4K/60, 1080/60, and 720/60, and start/stop via the OK button. In Time-lapse, the camera builds your movie for you and doesn't leave you with separate still images. It works great for those who don't want to process hundreds (thousands?) of full resolution image, but leaves you with less control. Using this mode is a little clunky because it's buried so deep in the D850's submenus.
According to Nikon, the standard EN-EL15a battery is capable of shooting up to 1,840 full resolution still images or approximately 70 minutes of 4K video in a single charge. While in the field, mixing still shooting, videos with multiple frame rates & resolutions, reviewing footage, wireless transfer, and all the testing you've read about in this review, I found D850 battery life to be a mixed bag. If you're only shooting stills and not reviewing your material or uploading it off the camera, you could probably eek out a day's worth of work. With our heavy usage, we got about five hours per battery. Definitely needed two batteries for longer days.
You can also opt to attach the MB-D18 Battery Grip ($396.95 MSRP) with an EN-EL18a (or EL18b) battery ($220 MSRP) and an MH-26A battery charger, which boosts speeds to 9fps and 5,140 shots per charge. Or, you can pick up extra EN-EL15a batteries for about $73 each.
NEGATIVE DIGITIZER OPTION
This feature requires a $150 (ES-2) Film Digitizing Adapter and a compatible Micro-NIKKOR Lens, but if you have old 35mm film negatives and positives (in color or black & white), you can use the D850 as a high-resolution scanner.
The D850 includes built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well as Nikon Snapbridge connectivity, which will send a 2MP version of those massive 45MP files to your phone for instant social sharing and/or allow you to control the D850 remotely from any iOS or Android device. You can also opt to add the Nikon WT-7A Wireless Transmitter, which connects to the D850 via USB and enables deeper security while allowing you to upload files to an FTP site and/or control the camera via any web browser in the world.
This is a bit of a good news / bad news situation. Snapbridge is easier to install and pair than ever before, and it's quite helpful to have quick 2MB files that you can toss up on Instagram. But, I learned the hard way that if you don't put the D850 into Air Plane Mode, the camera's wireless settings will suck down your battery (even if the camera's powered off for the night). Also, about halfway through my review, I disconnected Snapbridge and was unable to get it to pair again, which meant I couldn't remotely control the camera, and there were issues with manually selecting images I wanted to download to the app.
Overall, the wireless experience is improving and should get there whenever Snapbridge is updated next, and always use Airplane Mode if you're out in the field.
The Nikon D850 is one of the best DSLRs ever made. Period. Full stop.
Yes, we had a few notes -- the Live View AutoFocus is slow, you'll see some rolling shutter in video, it's a little hard to find settings in the endless menus, and Snapbridge has a few bugs (and will eat your battery!), so it's not the perfect camera for those who split their time between stills and video.
Nitpicks aside, the D850 is so extraordinary I can't really see the need for anyone to buy a D5 until that camera is replaced or maybe not even then. The images captured are gorgeous, accurate, and so, so flexible. Especially when it comes to pulling up shadow details. The metering system is spot-on, while the AutoFocus system is excellent. And, while you wouldn't want to shoot overly complicated action, the video 4K recording capabilities are top notch. In other words, if you shoot stills but need a quality camera to capture interviews or B-roll for vlogs or documentaries, the D850 does a better job (with far more manageable file sizes) than the 5D Mark IV. You could easily argue that the Sony A9 and the Panasonic GH5 are better video cameras, but the D850 has more available telephoto glass than the Sony and takes far superior stills when compared to the GH5.
The only question remaining is this: what does the D850 DSLR mean in 2017?
Nikon, if you're reading this, I adore your D850 but I have one piece of advice: get yourselves some legit Live View Auto Focus, take all of the wonderful things you mastered here in the D850, and put it into a mirrorless camera. Keep it weather-sealed. Keep it ergonomic. Keep your gorgeous sensors. But a more compact system with in-body image stabilization and your stunning glass could easily become The Perfect Camera for pros who split time between stills and videos.
You can do this; you're already so, so close.
Thanks again for the chance to review this BEAST!
PICK UP THE NIKON D850 IF...
You're an enthusiast or pro photographer who wants access to great glass, needs the benefits of shooting full-frame 35mm without the expense of a Medium Format camera, and who primarily shoots stills -- landscapes, weddings, portraits, products, even action or sports.
SKIP THE NIKON D850 IF...
You're a video-first shooter or its out of your budget (maybe consider the D500 or OM-D EM-1 Mark II). Yes, the D850 shoots handsome video that would be great for vlogs and documentaries, but if you need to shoot moving subjects, then you might want to consider the Sony A9, which has a dramatically superior AF system, or the Panasonic GH5, which has more pro-features and can do in-camera HDR video.)
PRICING & AVAILABILITY
The Nikon D850 is available now for $3,296.95.
Visitors of Steves can visit the stores below for real-time pricing and availability. You can also find hot, soon to expire online offers on a variety of cameras and accessories at our very own Camera Deals page.