By Richard Butler [Originally posted July 25th 2017]

We were lucky enough to get a chance to handle the D850 and shoot a couple of quick test shots, though it was a pre-production camera, so we haven't been able to conduct a full and detailed analysis of these images.

Based on these experiences, we're very impressed with the camera (as really should be the case when one of the big camera makers updates one of its most expensive, most ambitious models). From the specs alone, the camera promises something like the image quality of the Fujifilm GFX 50S with something like the autofocus performance of the Nikon D5. That's a big deal.

...it could really be a camera for all disciplines

The Sony a99 II showed it was possible to offer high resolution images and fast shooting, but the D850 takes this a step further. There are some 'ifs,' of course, but if the sensor can offer the low ISO image quality of the D810 combined with the AF of the D5 at between seven and nine frames per second, then it could really be a camera for all disciplines, from high res studio work to street fashion, weddings, sports, landscapes...

Whether it lives up to this promise will come down to the implementation, and it's what we've experienced of this, hands-on, that leaves us impressed. For a start, it seems that a revised shutter and mirror mechanism has resolved the shock issues the D810 exhibited with longer lenses. This is a critical improvement for such a high resolution camera and one that isn't directly covered in the specs, but our quick shots suggest it's done the job.

We weren't able to examine the camera's high ISO performance, but a quick check at base ISO suggests the ISO 64 mode does offer a DR advantage over ISO 100, which is what allowed the D810 to match the dynamic range performance of the GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z. We've also not had a chance to check the shadows, so this is a very preliminary impression, but ISO 64 does seem to be a 'real' sensitivity setting (i.e., not just ISO 100, but clipping earlier).

We're less excited about the D850's video specification. Again, these impressions are based on brief use of a pre-production camera, but it seems extremely unlikely that Nikon is going to find a way to significantly change the sensor readout or processing speed to improve the rolling shutter we observed during our time with the camera. The footage itself looks like it's pixel-binned. This means that we don't expect the same level of fine detail as oversampled footage (where the information from all the pixels is demosaiced and then downscaled to 4K resolution), but on the plus side, it is less prone to moiré and should be better in low light than footage created by line skipping.

We're less excited about the D850's
video specification

Although we have our concerns about the level of rolling shutter we saw and the continued lack of focus peaking for manual focusing in 4K mode, it's worth putting this in perspective. Canon's 5D Mark IV, the latest camera in what was once the go-to DSLR series for film makers, also exhibits significant rolling shutter despite also being subject to a significant crop. By comparison, The D850 offers the full (horizontal) field of view of its sensor, which is likely to make it a much easier camera to shoot with. Either way, we suspect there will be a lot of photographers from a broad range of disciplines who simply won't care, or will find the results more than good enough given the camera's other capabilities.

Then there's SnapBridge. It's a primarily Bluetooth-based communication system that works very well for sending Facebook-sized images to a smartphone on the beginner-friendly D3400 but, we felt, made considerably less sense on the enthusiast-targeted, high frame rate D500. Without a fairly fundamental rethink, this criticism is going to be even more pressing on the high frame rate and high resolution D850.

SnapBridge's Wi-Fi simply can't be used for many of the things you might now reasonably expect

Since Wi-Fi is only accessible via the app and can only be used to pull images from the camera, we're not even sure it's fair to describe the camera as offering Wi-Fi: it simply can't be used for many of the things you might now reasonably expect. There's no way to connect to a home network, no means to transfer Raw and not even a way to auto transfer images over Wi-Fi, rather than Bluetooth. It's perhaps telling that when we spoke to them, Nikon's representatives highlighted that the D850 is compatible with the expensive WT-7A connectivity module: i.e., 'if you need a solid connectivity solution, we have an accessory for that'.

Of course, other questions remain to be answered: even when lenses have been calibrated with Automated AF Fine Tune, will the camera be able to focus consistently enough to withstand scrutiny at 45.7MP? The D5's autofocus performance is excellent, but 20-46MP is a big jump and until we see a testable D850 there's no way of checking the results in such high detail. You can be assured it's one of the first things we'll check when a production-spec camera arrives.