For a long time, professional photographers have faced a blunt choice. You can get a camera with great resolution, like the Nikon D810, Canon EOS 5DS or Sony A7R II, but no real speed, or you can get a high-speed specialist like the Nikon D5, EOS-1D X II or Sony A9, but you then have to compromise on resolution. Maybe you even end up having to buy one of each! We haven’t forgotten the Sony A99 II, but Sony’s Alpha SLT system has yet to establish itself as a viable, forward-looking proposition for pro photographers.
This is why the new Nikon D850 is such a big deal. It doesn’t just raise the bar for resolution, it delivers a continuous shooting speed to rival a dedicated sports camera. At last, this is a professional DSLR that really can do anything. What’s more, this blend of speed and resolution is just one facet of a camera that could be Nikon’s most important new model for years.
Nikon has a number of photography genres in mind with the D850, including nature and landscapes, weddings, fashion and sport. In fact, this camera’s abilities are so wide-ranging that it could probably do anything, and it's only the contrast-based autofocus in live view mode that stops it being one of the best 4K cameras for filmmaking too.
So let’s look at these specifications properly. First, there’s the new sensor, which has an effective resolution of 45.7MP – 25% more than the ground-breaking Nikon D810.
The D850’s sensor has been designed with no anti-aliasing filter so that it can capture the finest possible detail. This is going to place heavy demands on both your lenses and your technique, as we’ll see later.
And then there’s the maximum continuous shooting speed of 9fps at full resolution, and with a buffer capacity of 51 uncompressed 14-bit Raw files. That is quite amazing, although here there are a couple of caveats.
The first is that you need the optional MB-D18 Multi-Power Battery Pack and EN-EL18B battery (as used in the Nikon D5) to achieve this speed. Without the grip, the camera can only shoot at 7fps – though that’s still impressive for a camera that has this level of resolution.
The second is that the quoted raw buffer capacity is also a ‘best-case’ figure at 7fps (not 9fps) and with the right memory cards.
The D850 comes with two very fast card slots – one for XQD cards, one for UHS-II SD cards – and you’ll need fast cards to go with them if you want to get anywhere near the quoted buffer capacity. And if you do get the MB-D18 grip and EN-EL18B battery for 9fps shooting, you won’t get the same Raw buffer capacity – see the Performance section for more on this.
And while the D850 does achieve an extraordinary blend of resolution and speed, it can’t quite carry this through into a high ISO range. The new sensor has a back-illuminated design and gapless on-chip microlenses, but inevitably the photosites are smaller than the Nikon D5’s, for example, and the ISO range is lower.
It’s still pretty good, going from ISO 64-25,600 is standard mode, and offering ISO 32-102,400 in expanded mode – and Nikon has used its powerful EXPEED 5 processor to help with noise control – but you wouldn’t choose this over a camera like the D5 for extreme low-light photography.
The Multi-CAM 20K AF sensor is powerful but its coverage does not extend to the edges of the frame – but you can always switch to Live View, and although this still uses relatively slow contrast autofocus, the new tilting touch-screen display is now much more useful. You can set it up for touch focus and even touch shutter operation, and a new Pinpoint AF mode helps you identify tiny targets, which is important given this camera’s level of resolution.
The Live View mode has another trick – a silent photography mode where the D850 switches to its electronic shutter and can shoot without making any noise at all. What’s more, because there’s no mirror or shutter movement, there’s less risk of mechanically-induced blur. You can shoot at up to 6fps at full resolution in this mode – or at an amazing 30fps at a reduced resolution of 8 megapixels.
This is perfect for sports where cameras are usually banned at key moments, for theatrical performances and weddings, where a clattering shutter would just spoil the moment.
We also need to talk about video. The D850 shoots 4K UHD video, as we all expected it would, but it uses the full sensor width to do so. This means that your lens focal lengths stay the same and you no longer have to juggle with irritating crop factors.
As well as regular 4K video, the D850 can capture and process 4K time-lapse movies in-camera, or stunning 8K time-lapse movies with silent interval timer shooting, though you will have to use external software to combine 8K frames into a movie.
There’s more, including an in-camera multiple exposure overlay mode for creating multi-image composites of moving subjects, a new 1:1 image ratio for square shots and in-camera raw batch processing, but we especially need to mention the battery life.
The D850 uses the same EN-EL15a battery found in other high-end Nikons, but where you’d expect the D850 to be a power-hungry ogre, it’s actually extremely frugal. According to Nikon, it will eke out 1,840 shots on a single charge, and that is truly impressive.