In Use...

The D850's spec sheet points to it being an extremely capable all-rounder, at home capturing high contrast landscape scenes with incredible detail and dynamic range, while also handling moving subjects with aplomb. Let's look a little deeper into some common situations D850 owners are likely to put their cameras through and see how it measures up.

Landscape

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 24-120mm F4G @ 24mm.
ISO 64 | 1/250 sec | F5.6

The D850 ticks off an awful lot of boxes for landscape shooters. While full-frame image sensors may be near-universally capable these days, megapixel count remains the premiere specification for most camera manufacturers and buyers. And the D850 has many, many megapixels: 45.7 of them, to be exact. That resolution will allow you to capture incredible detail in your landscape scenes.

In addition to the sheer volume of pixels the D850 offers, it also, like its predecessor, offers a native base ISO value of 64. Thus, the D850 is able to capture 2/3 EV more light than competitors that offer a base ISO value of 100, allowing it to reach medium format levels of dynamic range. For more information on how this impacts your images in the real world, read up on a four-way camera comparison in our review of the D810, here.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon AF-S 28mm F1.4E.
ISO 64 | 1/800 sec | F8

So we've got resolution, and we've got dynamic range. The D850 also features a pro-level, all-metal build with weather sealing, so you can be confident that, with a suitably sealed lens, it'll stand up to the elements. Being a DSLR, battery life will be excellent if you're using the optical viewfinder. If you do pop into live view to frame your shots, the tilting touchscreen will allow you to work at odd angles easily (as long as you're shooting in - you guessed it - landscape orientation), and you'll be able to place your autofocus point quickly and easily with a tap of your finger.

If you're into time lapses, the D850 has a new option to use the mechanical shutter for the first image, and then subsequent images will be taken using a fully electronic shutter; this preserves battery life, allowing you to capture thousands of images on a charge. For shooters that use focus stacking, the D850 will take a burst of images while automatically racking through the focus range, and then save those images in a separate folder for easy access later on. (Be aware this is only available when using newer AF-S and AF-P lenses).

The Nikon D850 should also be a great option for night sky work - it offers remarkably low noise levels, likely due to both the BSI technology on the sensor and a 'dual gain' treatment for ISO. Image processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 24mm F1.8G.
ISO 3200 | 15 sec | F2.8

So what exactly holds back the D850 as a landscape shooters' dream camera? Not much, but there are still a couple of considerations worth mentioning.

First of all - lenses. Nikon's wide-angle lens lineup is fairly complete, but with 46MP, many are beginning to show their age. This is particularly true in light of new and excellent offerings from the likes of Canon and Sony. There are still good Nikon options, but you're going to need to shell out a good amount of money for the more premium options to get the best possible results. (That shot of Smith Rock above taken on the 24-120mm F4 shows how that lens struggles to keep up with the sensor, once you move away from the center of the image).

Lastly, the Nikon D850 is not a petite camera. For landscape shooters that are also into backpacking or other outdoor pursuits where every ounce counts, a D850 with a couple of batteries and a couple of high-end lenses are going to weigh you down significantly.

But if you can live with the weight and the need for the very best lenses, the D850 is an absolutely excellent option for professional landscape work.

Formal portraiture

The D850's ability to nail critical focus will be a critical consideration for those using it for portraiture. Edited and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 85mm F1.4G.
ISO 64 | 1/200 sec | F2

The D850 is well-suited to shooting high-end studio and location portraiture for many of the same reasons that make it such a good landscape camera. Low noise and high dynamic range at base ISO make the files highly flexible for whatever your post production process might entail, and high resolution guarantees billboard-ready results if so required.

And while Nikon's wide-angle lens ecosystem is looking a little dated, they've dutifully updated a number of moderate telephoto lenses that will serve you well, even given the 46MP the D850 offers. In particular, the 105mm F1.4E and 70-200mm F2.8E both make excellent portrait lenses for individuals or couples.

If you're on location a lot, Nikon's new SB-5000 speedlights support radio triggering, so you don't necessarily have to rely on line-of-sight for off-camera flashes. Unfortunately, such functionality requires another hundred of your hard-earned dollars for the WR-R10 wireless remote controller. It's worth noting that, at this point, there's any number of other off-camera flash systems that offer both TTL and manual control depending on your needs. Through a variety of first-and-third party software and interfaces, the D850 also supports tethered shooting.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon AF-S 85mm F1.4G.
ISO 64 | 1/2000 sec | F2.8

We've seen in our autofocus testing that the D850 is capable of offering excellent autofocus precision (count those eyelashes!), but to be sure you're getting the best possible results, we recommend the use of Nikon's Automatic AF Fine Tune feature to make sure your lens is properly calibrated. That said, we've found that with this much resolution, a lens may require different calibrations for different subject distances (and if it's a zoom lens, with different focal lengths).

This can be particularly problematic if you encounter focus issues in the middle of a shoot - should such problems arise, it's best to switch into live view and focus using the rear screen. It's a little slower, and since the D850 is a bit heavy, it can be a little unwieldy to hold at arm's length, but the incredibly accurate focus is worth it.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 105mm F1.4E.
ISO 64 | 1/200 sec | F5.6

The biggest hurdle someone is likely to encounter with the D850 for this sort of usage, particularly if one is coming from a medium format system is the lack of a leaf shutter. This means that the flash sync speed tops out at 1/250 sec, above which you'll need to use High Speed Sync (HSS), which reduces the possible maximum power output of the flash relative to your ambient exposure. It may also get in the way of using wider apertures when working outdoors during the day, unless you were to use a neutral density filter. Lastly, this could also potentially present a problem for those that need to freeze extremely fast motion while using flash, but this is a bit of an edge case.

Overall then, we find the D850 to be a camera that is well-suited to high-end studio and portraiture work. You will need to be careful with your lens calibration and you may need to work around the sync speed, but the D850's overall performance and image quality make it a compelling option.

Weddings and events

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon AF-S 24-120mm F4G.
ISO 180 | 1/250 sec | F4

Photography of weddings and events can be viewed, at its core, as a combination of many other types of photography. You may need some of the same capabilities as landscape photography to get high quality images of the venue. Autofocus precision and reliability can be important for staged portraits. You'll also benefit from good overall responsiveness and autofocus tracking performance for the dance floor and candids. There's some nuances in there, but it certainly seems that the D850 is up to the task.

The D850 now sports a battery life rated at 1840 shots, up from 1200 on the D810, which was already very good. And when you worry less about batteries, you can concentrate more on your surroundings. As is the case with most DSLRs, the D850 is also highly responsive in general operation, meaning that it's ready as soon as you are - when you need to quickly move from shooting a staged portrait to capture a candid moment off to the side, for example.

The D850 is also great as a 46MP photo booth camera. Nikon AF-S 35mm F1.8G.
ISO 400 | 1/160 sec | F4

It's a common practice for wedding shooters to use one 'resolution' body and one 'speed' body alongside each other, a preference that the D850 has the potential to change. Offering 7fps right out of the box, the D850 should be able to keep up with most standard wedding moments, like a bouquet toss. It also offers medium and small Raw formats, so you don't need to store huge 46MP files all the time if you don't want. Be aware though that our preliminary testing shows that these alternate Raw files aren't as malleable as the regular ones, unfortunately.

For those wedding shooters that have switched to mirrorless and who may be eyeing a D850 with some interest, we must mention that this is a big, heavy camera. Hauling two of them around with two big F2.8 zooms will put far more strain on your back than, say, a couple of Fujifilm X-T2's.

A wedding shooter can often be photographing from sunup to sunset, and the fact that every single one of the D850's autofocus points is sensitive down to at least -3 EV (which is around the amount of light on a moonlit evening) will help immensely with capturing accurately focused images when the lights go down. Backlit controls and the biggest-ever Nikon DSLR viewfinder will help you in this situation as well. We should note, though, that the AF points can be difficult to see, and even when they're lit up, they appear dimmer than on the D810.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 35mm F1.8G.
ISO 3200 | 1/200 sec | F2

And if you can get Snapbridge working (it's improved, but is still finicky), you can transfer some of the images of guests you've just taken directly to their phones or to a Fuji Instax printer, for example, which is always crowd pleaser. Overall, then, if you can live with the weight and don't mind large files, the D850 really doesn't have a whole lot to hold it back as a wedding shooters' primary camera.

Sports and action

Processed and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 16-35mm F4G.
ISO 110 | 1/2000 sec | F8

Sports cameras are highly specialized machines. They must be incredibly rugged, respond to your inputs instantly, autofocus and shoot quickly, have good burst speed and short viewfinder blackout. The D850 gets most of these right, but it's not perfect.

We don't torture test cameras at DPReview, but at the very least, the D850 is very well-sealed against dirt and dust (thanks to Chris Niccolls for confirming this on a recent Nikon press trip - no signs of dust in his D850 after he fell into a pile of dirt). The port doors are very secure, and there's noticeable gaskets around the card and battery doors. The solid, all-metal construction should handily stand up to a knock or two.

We've already found autofocus on the D850 to be generally very good. Using either a single point, zone or group of focus points resulted in a very high hit rate across a variety of sports and subjects and with a minimal amount of required setup - this is a strong bonus over Canon's DSLR options, which also offer excellent autofocus, but require you to dial in specific parameters for your shooting situation. We found that 3D Tracking, wherein you choose your subject with a single AF point and the camera automatically moves the AF point to follow your subject, isn't quite as reliable as Nikon's flagship D5, but it is certainly a big improvement over the D810.

Processed and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 70-200mm F2.8E.
ISO 160 | 1/2500 sec | F4

For hardcore sports shooters, the D850's burst speed of seven frames per second may not be fast enough - you can add a grip and a D5 battery to boost it to 9fps, which is more 'sports shooting' territory, but those add-ons come at a pretty steep cost. We'll also be looking more in-depth at the D850's performance with the grip attached in a future article. For now though, if outright speed is your primary concern, better to look up-market to the Canon EOS-1D X II, Sony a9 or Nikon D5 - a Nikon D500 is also a good option if you don't necessarily need the full frame sensor.

The use of XQD cards in the D850 is likely to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair from potential buyers, but bear in mind, the insane speed they offer enables bursts to be written in the matter of a few seconds after you stop shooting - even though your files are 46MP monsters. This will allow you to quickly check critical focus on your images and get back to shooting that much faster, and the read speed will also mean much faster downloads.

Lastly, we're pleased to see that the D850's JPEG engine appears to be much improved relative to the D810's, with excellent color and good sharpening. This is particularly important for photographing professional sports, as so much of the time, photographers will need to send off JPEG images immediately to editors after crucial plays mid-game. Somewhat paradoxically, then, the 46MP resolution can be a little overkill for these types of shooters.

Processed to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Nikon 300mm F4G PF.
ISO 80 | 1/1000 sec | F4

Video

For Nikon shooters interested in branching into video, the D850 is the company's first camera that can record 4K video using the full width of the sensor, allowing users to realize the full potential of their wide-angle lenses in movie mode. There is also a DX (APS-C) crop option, which improves 4K video quality, as well as an array of Full HD and slow motion options.

While the D850 lacks any true Log gamma options for those who are grading their video footage in post, it does include Nikon's 'Flat' picture profile, which allows for some degree of grading flexibility. A first on any Nikon is focus peaking for those who prefer manual focus, but it's only available when shooting Full HD. There are also customizable zebra patterns for warning you about clipped highlights, an automatic attenuator to keep your audio from blowing out, and electronic image stabilization, though that last one is again only available in Full HD.

The tilting screen comes in handy for waist-level video shooting, and you can use the touchscreen to place your point of focus. The camera is a little bit heavy for run-and-gun work, but if you're going to be putting it on a tripod, this is obviously a non-issue.

The D850's biggest deficiency for a lot video shooters these days will be the lack of any decent video autofocus functionality. It is typical contrast-detect only, meaning it hunts distractingly back and forth before settling into focus. Canon's Dual Pixel AF is worlds better, Panasonic's Depth-from-Defocus has seen remarkable improvements in recent cameras, and Sony's on-sensor phase detection is also adept at smooth autofocus transitions.

So while the Nikon D850 does make a suitable video camera for a stills oriented shooter looking to branch out, we can't help but recommend the dedicated video producer look elsewhere for better options.

Click here to read more about the experience of shooting video with the Nikon D850.