What's it like to use D850 as a video camera?

Despite there being a mirror between the sensor and the thing you're trying to film, the D850 is a pretty capable video camera

SLRs weren't really designed for video but, thanks to the pioneering work of the Canon 5D Mark II, it's increasingly expected to be a feature they offer. Nikon has struggled more than its big rival in this respect, not helped by a reliance on contrast detect AF and a lens mount designed around the assumption that you'd never need to change aperture while taking a shot. It's also been somewhat held back by not having a camcorder or broadcast equipment division to lean on during the development process.

Despite all these hurdles, the D850 is the company's most capable video camera yet, with 4K capture taken from the full width of the sensor. But how videographer-friendly is accessing this capability? And, just as importantly for this do-everything super camera, what's it like to use for stills shooters, such as wedding photographers and photojournalists who're increasingly being asked to capture clips as well as stills?

Features

Beyond the headline specs: 4K UHD capture from the full sensor width or 1.5x crop and slow mo 1080 from 120 fps capture, Nikon has added a host of features to make video capture easier.

The most obvious of these features is the addition of focus peaking to help indicate the plane of focus as you shoot. As is fairly common, there are three settings for peaking intensity and a choice of four colors. In addition, there's a zebra-style highlight warning for setting exposure. But, as we'll see, having a feature and having it well implemented are not always the same thing.

Having a feature and having it well implemented are not always the same thing

Other features include a Flat Picture Control color profile, which uses a low-contrast tone curve to avoid clipping to black as aggressively as the standard stills profiles do. Some users have tried to create Log or psuedo-Log profiles using Nikon's Picture Control Utility software, but we've not had a chance to test any of these yet, and we've not heard of any attempts to build LUTs to simplify the grading process.

There are some other nice touches, too. The camera records its starting aperture and ISO setting along with other shooting metadata such as Picture Style and D-Lighting setting with each clip. This is something you take for granted as a stills shooter, but without any widely-adopted equivalent of the EXIF standard, it's still pretty rare for the kinds of hybrid stills/video cameras we usually encounter.

The experience

The experience doesn't always live up to the promise that this list of video-friendly features might imply. Sadly, it's the headline features that fail first.

The D850 has focus peaking but it can't be used when you're shooting 4K. Or when you're using electronic stabilization. Or Slo-Mo mode. Or when you've got highlight warnings engaged. Or in combination with Active D-Lighting. Which, in my experience, isn't that different from not having focus peaking at all.

The highlight warnings are a lot better. They're easily engaged* via the touchscreen and persist across the different view modes (grid view, histogram, audio meters, virtual horizon) as you cycle through them. They're fairly simplistic, though, only indicating areas brighter than the threshold, so they can't be set to indicate regions that are roughly 75% for Caucasian skin tones, for instance. Also, this threshold is specified in 8-bit brightness values, not IRE %, as is more common.

Then, of course, there's video autofocus, which is every bit as bad as you'd expect of a system designed around contrast detection using lenses that weren't. It's jumpy and indecisive, even when asked to pull focus between two stationary objects.

However, the touchscreen access to many key settings is very good, allowing you to adjust the audio capture on-the-fly without the need for any noise or vibration-creating button presses.

Better still is the option to use the two buttons on the camera's front plate to adjust either exposure compensation (if you're using Auto ISO to maintain brightness in manual exposure mode) or Power Aperture, the smooth, motor-driven aperture control mode. These buttons are easily accessible as you shoot, without causing too much camera shake.

What does this end up meaning?

For experienced videographers, none of these are issues you can't work around to one degree or another. Planning shots to minimize the need to refocus or 'blocking' a shot so that any movement is predictable are pretty basic techniques. When working this way, using magnified live view or tap-to-focus single AF to set initial focus then using the lens distance scale to judge movement may be enough.

Alternatively, adding on an external recorder will often bring much more powerful versions of Zebra and Peaking tools where the D850 fumbles, as well as features such as waveforms and false color that are vanishingly rare on hybrid cameras anyway.

Videographers are likely to appreciate the features gained from Nikon's well-polished stills interface

The camera's HDMI output is limited to an 8-bit 4:2:2 stream, so there won't be a big hike in quality, but the videographer willing to experiment with homebrew Log-like profiles will no doubt find it a very capable camera. Ultimately, the D850's video quality is easily good enough to make these sorts of workarounds worthwhile.

Videographers are also likely to appreciate the degree to which the video side of the camera has gained from Nikon's well-polished stills interface. Hold the ISO button and the rear dial changes ISO while the front toggles Auto ISO, hold the WB button down when one of the camera's 6 (!) Custom WB values is selected and you can set a new custom value at the tap of the rear controller. It's pretty slick when you're out and shooting.

For stills shooters

For the less experienced video shooter the D850 is likely to be quite a handful, though. Without usable autofocus, you'll need to learn how to manual focus and minimize the need to, to work around the camera's shortcomings. This makes it challenging for anyone who can't control or choreograph the action, which is likely to include exactly the sort of wedding photographers and photojournalists who might be attracted to the D850.

However, you won't need to learn too much about video exposure in order to make use of highlight warnings and the simple aperture control on the camera, beyond basics such as the 180 degree shutter 'rule.'

This is helped by at least one feature we've been requesting for many years: the camera retains two banks of shooting settings, one for stills, one for video. This means you can specify a custom white balance and color profile and choose exposure settings (including ISO behavior) for video, then jump back to your stills settings at a moment's notice.

In a clever piece of design, you can even define a button let you check your stills settings, while you're shooting movies, so you need never be caught out. But this two-setting design is perfect for wedding shooters, who can hit the shutter button to shoot a grabbed still, fractions of a second after capturing some video footage, without the risk of everything looking, well, a bit Flat.

It's also worth noting that the "e-stabilizer" mode that's available when shooting 1080 footage is very impressive, making on-the-go handheld shooting a realistic proposition. Better still, its resolution is near indistinguishable from the unstabilized variety, so you can shoot both and intercut at will.

Overall, then, there's a lot to like about the D850 and Nikon deserves recognition for putting a lot of thought and effort into making its video capture better. However, it does little to make video any easier to shoot for video novices in a way that Canon's Dual Pixel AF system does. For now, at least, you still need to build up plenty of videography experience to work your way around the D850's wobbly AF and occasional quirks.