Nikon D850 preview

The Nikon D850 is Nikon's latest high resolution full-frame DSLR, boasting a 46MP backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. But, in a fairly radical departure for the series, it is also one of the company's fastest-shooting DSLRs. This combination of properties should significantly widen the camera's appeal to high-end enthusiasts as well as a broad range of professional photographers.

Key Specifications:

  • 45.7MP BSI CMOS sensor
  • 7 fps continuous shooting with AE/AF (9 with battery grip and EN-EL18b battery)
  • 153-point AF system linked to 180,000-pixel metering system
  • UHD 4K video capture at up to 30p from full sensor width
  • 1080 video at up to 120p, recorded as roughly 1/4 or 1/5th speed slow-mo
  • 4:2:2 8-bit UHD uncompressed output while recording to card
  • 1 XQD slot and 1 UHS II-compliant SD slot
  • Battery life rated at 1840 shots
  • 3.2" tilting touchscreen with 2.36M-dot (1024×768 pixel) LCD
  • Illuminated controls
  • 19.4MP DX crop (or 8.6MP at 30fps for up to 3 sec)
  • SnapBridge full-time Bluetooth LE connection system with Wi-Fi
  • Advanced time-lapse options (including in-camera 4K video creation)

High resolution

The use of a backside illuminated (BSI) sensor means that the light collecting elements of the sensor are closer to the surface of the chip. This should not only increase the efficiency of the sensor (improving low light performance) but should also be expected to make the pixels near the edges of the sensor better able to accept light approaching with high angles of incidence, improving peripheral image quality.

Like the D810 before it, the D850 continues to offer an ISO 64 mode, that allows it to tolerate more light in bright conditions. We will be testing whether this gives the D850 the same dynamic range advantage as the D810, as soon as a production version arrives but our initial quick looks suggests it does, meaning it should be able to compete with the medium format sensors used in the likes of the Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z.

A BSI sensor with ISO 64 setting should be able to match the D810's low ISO DR while also offering improved performance in at high ISOs.

The D850 has gained a more usable electronic front curtain shutter option (EFCS), which can now be used quiet shutter modes, as well as live view and Mirror-Up mode. To get the full benefit, though, you need to turn on exposure delay (which has had two sub-second delay settings added). However, exposure delay persists across all shooting modes. Thankfully, and presumably thanks to a redesigned shutter and mirror mechanism, our quick check with a pre-production model suggests that mirror/shutter shock may not be much of an issue, even without engaging it EFCS.

The D850 has no anti-aliasing filter, which should allow for slightly finer detail capture but with added risk of moiré, if any of your lenses are sharp enough to out-resolve a 45.7MP full-frame sensor. There's still no sign of the clever design Nikon patented so, unlike the Pentax K-1 or Sony RX1R II, you can't engage an anti-aliasing effect if you do find false color appearing in densely patterned areas.

High Speed

In addition to the increased speed, the D850 also gains the full AF capabilities of the company's flagship sports camera: the D5. This includes all the hardware: AF module, metering sensor and dedicated AF processor, as well as the full range of AF modes and configuration options, which should translate to comparable focus performance combined with high resolution.

Given the D5 possessed one of the best AF systems we've ever seen and could continue to offer that performance in a wide range of conditions and shooting scenarios with minimal need for configuration, this is an exciting prospect.

As part of this system, the D850 gains the automated system for setting an AF Fine Tune value. It only calibrates the lens based on the central AF point and for a single distance, but it's a simple way to ensure you're getting closer to your lenses' full capabilities, which is handy given you'll now be able to scrutinize their performance with 46MP of detail.

Add the optional MB-D18 battery grip and an EN-EL18b battery, and the D850 will shoot at 9 frames per second.

Impressively, the D850 can shoot at nine frames per second if you add the optional MB-D18 battery grip and buy an EN-EL18b battery, as used in the D5. As well as increasing the camera's burst rate, this combination also ups the battery life to a staggering 5140 shots per charge. You don't get this same boost in speed or endurance if you use a second EN-EL15a in the grip, though.

An MB-D18 plus an EN-EL18b is likely to set you back over $580 over and above the cost of the camera body ($399 for the grip, around $149 for the battery, $30 for the BL-6 battery chamber cover plus the cost of a charger).

The D850 also includes a sufficiently deep buffer to allow fifty-one 14-bit losslessly compressed Raw files, meaning the majority of photographers are unlikely to hit its limits.

Video capabilities

In terms of video the D850 becomes the first Nikon DSLR to capture 4K video from the full width of its sensor. The camera can shoot at 30, 25 or 24p, at a bitrate of around 144 Mbps. It can simultaneously output uncompressed 4:2:2 8-bit UHD to an external recorder while recording to the card. Our initial impression is that the video is pixel-binned, rather than being resolved then downsampled (oversampling), but we'll be checking on this as part of the review process. This risks lowering the level of detail capture and increases the risk of moiré, though it's a better solution than line-skipping. There also seemed to be a fair amount of rolling shutter, but again these are only first impressions from a camera running non-final firmware.

At 1080 resolution, the camera can shoot at up to 60p, with a slow-mo mode that can capture at 120 frames per second before outputting at either 25 or 24p. The 1080 mode also offers focus peaking and digital stabilization, neither of which are available for 4K shooting.

The D850's tilting rear screen will make video shooting easier, though we doubt many will use its contrast-detection tap-to-focus system when they do.

The D850 doesn't have any Log gamma options for high-end videographers, but it does have the 'Flat' Picture Profile to squeeze a little extra dynamic range into its footage, without adding too much to the complexity of grading. It also offers full Auto ISO with exposure compensation when shooting in manual exposure mode, meaning you can set your aperture value and shutter speed, and let the camera try to maintain that brightness by varying the sensitivity.

As you'd expect from a camera at this level, the D850 also includes the Power Aperture feature that allows the camera to open and close the lens iris smoothly when in live view mode. There's also an 'Attenuator' mode for the camera's audio capture, that rolls-off any loud noises to avoid unpleasant clipping sounds.