Image Quality

Our test scene is designed to simulate a variety of textures, colors and detail types you'll encounter in the real world. It also has two illumination modes to see the effect of different lighting conditions.

The D850's 45 megapixels allow it to compete directly with the higher pixel counts of the Canon EOS 5DS R, Fujifilm GFX 50S and Pentax 645Z. In the very finest detail you can see a difference, with the Nikon not able to correctly render the fine waves in the bank note. It's starting to show texture on the faces of the playing cards.

Without anti-aliasing filters, all these cameras exhibit a degree of false color from moiré, when used with lenses that are sharp at relatively wide apertures (before diffraction blurs detail too much for this to occur).

Noise levels are competitive with the Fujifilm GFX 50S, at high ISO settings, which puts it ahead of the EOS 5DS R but behind the Pentax 645Z, which appears to be applying some noise reduction. More significantly, the D850 outperforms its predecessor at high ISO, presumably thanks to its BSI and dual gain sensor design.

JPEG output

JPEG color is pretty standard for Nikon, so if you like Nikon JPEGs, you'll be happy. We tend to prefer the slightly less pink Caucasian skin tones of Canon and Fujifilm but it's a fairly subtle difference. Yellows are noticeably more saturated and a fraction more orange than those two brands but have none of the green tinge that remains in the Sony a7R II's images. The camera's representation of greens is rather pleasant, too.

Like the recent D7500, the D850 has an 'Auto' Picture Control setting that adjusts the color and tonal response to suit its understanding of the subject matter. It generally produces very pleasing results, but be aware that there can be shot-to-shot variance. So if you're going for a certain look to all your shots, you may wish to stick to one particular mode as we did for our studio scene ('Standard').

Default sharpening is well-judged, emphasizing edges in fine detail but without exaggerating them too much. It doesn't do quite as well as the Fujifilm GFX 50S or Sony a7R II, when it comes to lower-contrast detail, but with such a high pixel count, it still looks good. This is a big improvement over the D810, which is fortunate, since only the intensity of the sharpening can be adjusted, with no control over threshold or radius/fineness control.

Noise reduction is a little unsophisticated compared to the best of its peers, with fine detail smoothed away relative to, say, the GFX 50S or the context-sensitive noise reduction of recent Sony cameras. However, the combination of noise reduction and sharpening emphasizes edges to maintain a semblance of detail even if some of the subtlety is lost. Again this is a big improvement over the D810's default output, and is miles ahead of Canon cameras' output.

Overall, then, the Raw performance is good, with no nasty surprises. The JPEGs do a pleasing, though not cutting-edge, job of translating that performance into the camera's basic output. The new 'Auto' and 'Standard' Picture Controls are a significant upgrade over the D810/D750 era, offering - in our opinion - far more pleasing colors and detail. Enough that you may often opt for the JPEG over processing the Raw yourself.

Mirror / shutter shock

One of our biggest issues with the D810 was the softness and often significant blur induced by shake caused by the mirror and shutter mechanisms, particularly with VR lenses where the vibration reduction mechanism seemed to interact negatively with the shock caused by the moving mirror and/or shutter. At certain shutter speeds with some lenses it was bad enough to render completely unusable images.

Thankfully, the D850 largely addresses these issues in two very useful ways. First, the mirror and shutter mechanisms have been redesigned to as to cause minimal image blur across all shooting scenarios. And we mean it: we saw only minimal softness at shutter speeds between 1/80s to 1/125s shutter speeds at 300mm with VR. Compare that to the dismal results the D810 exhibited under similar circumstances.

But if you want ultimate sharpness, you have the option for electronic first curtain (EFCS), which is far more usable on the D850 than on the D810. On its predecessor, EFCS was only available in Mirror Up mode, which meant it wasn't useful for general photography. It even required two shutter button presses, ideally with an exposure delay after the second press (the shortest delay was 1 second, which made it even more cumbersome). We asked Nikon to allow EFCS in all other drive modes paired with a short (0.1 to 0.2s) delay such that the mirror and shutter would open, and the camera would then wait a fraction of a second before initiating the exposure electronically.

We kind of got it: on the D850, you can pair EFCS with shorter 0.2 or 0.5s Exposure Delays, and EFCS is now additionally available in both Q and Qc modes. This completely eradicates any mirror/shutter shock issues at any shutter speed with most lenses, yielding images as tack sharp as mirrorless. The only downside? You have to remember to switch to Q mode and enable an exposure delay. We wish Nikon had allowed an option to automatically enable the 0.2s Exposure Delay mode in Q mode when EFCS is turned on, so you could quickly switch between typical still shooting with no delay in Single and Continuous drive modes, but switch to a 'tack sharp' shooting mode in Q mode with the 0.2s delay.