Living with the Nikon D850: Should you upgrade from your Nikon D810?

Living with the Nikon D850: Should you upgrade from your Nikon D810?

I’ve had a Nikon D850 for a few weeks now, and been able to use it in a variety of situations, and with a variety of lenses. For the TL;DR crowd the short answer is that it’s an amazing camera and produces great images. In my case, I’m very happy to have upgraded from my (which I sold to recover about 1/2 the cost of the D850), although that upgrade isn’t for everyone, so let’s discusses the pros and cons.


First things first: The Nikon D850 is amazing

The Nikon D850 is an impressive camera, combining a solid frame rate with massive resolution, excellent ergonomics, stunning images, and pro-quality video. I’ve written a more complete review (complete with full-resolution sample images) of my experiences for to help you get a sense of it (See: ).

What you gain by moving to the

Speed: For me, the spec that caught my attention first is the frame rate. I really missed not having 8 or more fps when I went to the as my primary camera. I realized how much every time I reviewed a camera with a higher frame rate, and then when I bought a as my backup camera. With the D850, I get 7 fps out of the box, with 9 a possibility once the vertical grip is available. Now, it is completely fair to ask how often 7 fps or 9 fps really makes a difference compared to 5 fps. Frankly, probably a lot less than most people think. If you can time your shots, you can do pretty well even with a slow frame rate. But for action that is too fast to follow with the human eye, frame rate becomes crucial. Plus, it is just more fun to have the camera feel responsive when shooting action. It makes it feel more like a sports car instead of a sedan.

Resolution: When I first got my I thought it had all the resolution I’d ever need. For most of what I photograph, that is still true. So I personally wouldn’t have cared if the had stayed with the 36MP of the D810, but when conditions are perfect (as in light, lens, and subject) its increased 45MP resolution definitely produces some eye-popping detail. If you’re teetering on the edge of Medium Format, or jealous of your buddies who have super-high-resolution Canon or Sony models, the D850 certainly levels the playing field. Fortunately, Nikon seems to have been able to manage this without sacrificing low-light performance compared to the D810.

Video: Nikon has been playing catch up on video for years. The D850 finally adds 4K support (at 30fps), and 120 fps support for 1080p (to create slow motion videos). Since dozens of less expensive cameras have had 4K for a year or more, this is in the “about time” category. That said, whether you need 4K video is another matter. If you shoot video as part of your photo business, I think 4K is quickly becoming something clients expect as a capability. And viewing good 4K footage on a 4K big-screen TV or monitor definitely provides a better experience than standard 1080p video. So, if nothing else, it is certainly a step towards future proofing your video tools. Of course, if you don’t shoot video, it doesn’t matter.

Autofocus: Nikon has tripled the number of AF points in the D850. Coupled with its faster processor, that means the is one of the fastest focusing cameras I’ve used. It definitely feels quicker & more versatile than my D810 when it comes to locking onto moving subjects against tricky backgrounds. I still wish the AF points were spread out more across the frame, though. LiveView mode also adds Focus Peaking, a feature much beloved by Medium Format users. However, in my experience, it doesn’t work very well on the D850. Whether it detected that something was in focus seemed to have more to do with the objects native texture and shape than its distance from my camera.

Viewfinder: This was the biggest surprise for me when I got the camera. It is stunning. Each year, as Electronic Viewfinders improve, I keep thinking the Optical Viewfinder will go the way of the dinosaur. I suspect it eventually will, but the Viewfinder on the is fighting a great rearguard action. It is huge and bright. Perhaps that is part of the reason Nikon ditched the built-in flash, but for most photographers it’s a good tradeoff.

Ergonomics: Nikon has made some nice tweaks to the ergonomics of its DSLRs since the D810. A deeper grip makes them easier to hold, the ISO button is now reachable, and there is now a touch screen – one that actually proves really useful. They’ve also added a second little joystick, but I don’t find it useful (I control AF points with the larger, traditional, one) and yet more info screens and customization options. The LCD also tilts up and down, which is really handy for shooting high or low.

This image shot with the and gives you a sense of the detail possible.
Its been resized for the web, but if you there is a gallery of full-sized images.

What you might not like about the

XQD Slot: If your other camera is a D5, or you want the fastest and most rugged card system available, the move from CF to XQD for the second slot (in addition to SD) is a good thing. But it means more-expensive cards, and a dedicated card reader. For convenience I would have preferred they just have 2 SD slots, but I can definitely see the attraction of the sturdier XQD cards. Fortunately, XQD cards and readers have gotten much more affordable than when Nikon first started using the format.

No built-in Flash: It’s easy to dismiss the pop-up flash in a pro camera as being a waste. However, I found it useful to control other flashes when doing a quick setup. Now I just need to remember to also take along an additional flash or remote controller. Not a big deal, but it will be a loss for some.

Price: At $3300, the is priced about where the Nikon D800 and D810 were when they came out, so for those looking for a new camera, that seems reasonable. However, that’s a lot of money to spend to go from the D810 to the D850, depending on how much you think you can get back from selling your current camera (or how valuable it is to you as a backup). That said, it is also a lot less than you’d spend on a D5, and it mimics much of the D5’s performance while offering double the resolution and some new tricks of its own.

Availability: The D850 first run sold out almost instantly, so it is now back to “pre-order” status at B&H. I don’t know how long the wait will be, but if you want it this year, I recommend taking the plunge and getting your pre-order in now. Currently it is , and also on pre-order the .

Lenses for your new

Of course the will work with the same lenses you’re using on your , but to get the most out of its higher-resolution sensor, you’ll need to make sure you have really sharp lenses. No, I’m not proposing you swap out all your glass, but it’s certainly worth starting to plan on some possible lens upgrades. In particular, I’ve been testing two very-sharp primes with my and indeed they do bring out the best in the camera:

: DxOMark hasn’t tested this lens with the yet, but it is one of the sharpest they’ve ever tested on the , so it probably will also be on on the D850. Since in my day-to-day work I normally shoot with zoom or telephoto lenses, I don’t have a big list of lenses I can compare it with, but shooting with it on the D850 provides detail down to the pixel level. I’ll be writing more about the lens, but the short story is it is gorgeous, affordable at $849, solidly-built, and super sharp.

: Here too tests with the D850 are lacking, but the lens is one of the sharpest DxOMark has tested on the D810. It is large, and relatively-heavy for a prime lens, but you get the payoff in excellent image quality. At $1199 it isn’t cheap by any means, but if you make your living shooting portraits, this could easily be your goto lens.

But definitely don’t fret. This image of a fast flying RC plane, for example, was captured with a Nikon 80-400mm AF-S lens at 400mm. It is definitely not a super-sharp lens, especially at the long end, but you can see it still resolves plenty of detail (image downsized for web viewing). That lens also vignettes at the long end, but Adobe’s lens correction profile took care of that effortlessly:

More to come!

I’m just getting started with the possibilities of the . I look forward to working with its Video potential and also using it with some of my favorite action and wildlife lenses, as well as shooting some more with my day-to-day zoom lenses.