Nikon D850 Review
This is a guest review of the Nikon D850 full frame DSLR by wedding photographer Jesse La Plante.
Over my 10-plus years as a wedding photographer, I’ve shot with an array of different Nikon DSLRs. It wasn’t until 2013 when I unboxed my Nikon D800 and held it in my hands for the first time that I knew I had found “The One.”
Not to wax poetic or anything, but the D800 was a solid, robust, substantial piece of equipment that fit me like a glove. It’s been a trusty companion for me ever since and to this day remains one of the best purchasing decisions I’ve ever made.
Fast forward five years. It’s the winter of 2018 and a new box has arrived on my doorstep. It’s the brand new Nikon D850 and, at the risk of spoiling the narrative, I think I have a new love.
Nikon D850 Review | Build Quality & Handling
Much like the D800, the Nikon D850 is built like a tank. It’s a big, heavy sucker with the words “kick some ass and take some names” written all over it.
The size and weight is something that most reviewers mention as being a negative attribute, but I personally like a bit of heft when shooting. It just feels right in my hands. I like to know that what I’m holding is a professional camera body and, well, that’s exactly what the Nikon D850 is.
The Nikon D750 is great and all, but it feels like a toy by comparison.
Much like the other camera bodies in Nikon’s pro line, the D850 is weather sealed. I don’t know what this means exactly, but I’ll tell you this: I dumped an entire cup of steaming hot coffee directly onto this camera (I was bumped by a wedding guest) and nothing happened. Nothing.
It still has a bit of an acrid smell when I hold it up to my face, but other than that, there was no damage whatsoever.
I’m also really diggin’ the tilting LCD. I do a lot of shooting with the camera held low on the ground and high above my head, so the ability to change the angle of the screen in live view really helps to reduce the compositional guess work.
Like the Nikon D5, the D850 is sans pop-up flash, which I think is pretty wonderful. I feel like I’m always accidentally hitting the flash button on my other camera bodies, which flips that sucker up while I’m trying to work.
I can’t think of one, single time that I’ve thought to myself “Hey, I should use the pop-up flash for this shot!”
Finally, I want to mention the placement of the ISO button on the Nikon D850. It’s right next to the shutter release button, which makes it super convenient to adjust. While shooting with my other bodies, it always takes me a second to find the ISO button, which is inexplicably located in a different place on each individual camera.
With the D850, I can quickly adjust shutter, aperture and ISO without removing my eye from the viewfinder. Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but I tend to get lost in the creative process and I hate it when I have to pause to look for a damn button.
Nikon D850 Review | Interface
The user interface of the Nikon D850 is basically identical to every other modern Nikon DSLR with one noteworthy upgrade: touch screen capabilities.
I haven’t found myself using this feature too often, mostly because I’m simply not used to having it as an option in my DSLRs.
That said, the few times I’ve tinkered with it, I’ve found it to be very helpful in quickly navigating menus, scrolling through photos, etc.
My only minor qualm is that I frequently find myself brushing condensation (from my breath) off of the LDC while chimping, which, in turn, scrolls through photos in playback.
This is super nit-picky, but I’m struggling to find negative things to say about this camera!
Nikon D850 Review | Resolution
At 45.7 megapixels, the Nikon D850 has an absolute beast of a sensor.
I know what you’re thinking here: “Why does a wedding photographer need so many pixels?” Fair question. Most of us probably don’t. But having shot weddings in Colorado for over a decade, I would say that I’m just as much a landscape photographer as I am a wedding photographer.
There are so many vast, sweeping mountain vistas in the Centennial State, it’s difficult not to incorporate them into one’s wedding workflow.
Plus, a lot of our clients like to have a photo to blow up that doesn’t showcase them front and center (e.g. small subject, large landscape). The reason for this is that a huge close-up of a newlywed couple’s smiling faces can look a bit cheesy hanging over the mantelpiece.
And hell, sometimes during a wedding, I’ll go out and shoot B-roll of landscapes without the bride and groom at all.
These images could be good candidates for wall-sized prints in my studio at some point in the future. Truth be told, I don’t frequently make gigantic prints of my work, but it’s nice to know that I can if I want to.
Plus, the quality of detail in these ultra high-res images is just astounding.
That said, one of my favorite new features of the Nikon D850 is the ability to capture a smaller raw file when necessary. I shoot literally thousands of frames throughout the wedding day, which would really clog up my hard drives at 45 MP each.
Plus, photos of “getting ready” and the dance party (among others) aren’t exactly the types of shots that brides and grooms want to print large, so it can feel like a bit of a waste to shoot at full resolution.
Back when I had my D800, I would use a different camera for the majority of the wedding day and switch to the 800 during the mountain shots, sunset portraits, etc.
With the Nikon D850, I can simply select Raw Medium, which, at 25.6 MP is closer to my D750 in resolution, and then switch back over to Raw Large for the good stuff. This is a very cool new feature that I’ve found extremely useful.
Further contributing to the image detail of the Nikon D850 is the lack of an anti-aliasing filter. I’m not going to pretend that I understand the science at work here, but basically, an anti-aliasing filter reduces moiré caused by fine patterns, such as the threads in a groom’s tux or a table cloth, etc.
I must admit that I was a bit dubious at first, as my abhorrence for removing moiré in post burns with the fire of a thousand suns. But having shot three full weddings with the D850 to date, I haven’t noticed one bit of moiré in any of my images. And that extra fine detail is oh so nice to look at.
Nikon D850 Review | Dynamic Range
One of the tenets of my photography style is to (almost) always expose for the brightest thing in the frame. This means underexposing just about everything I shoot. The reason I do this is three-fold:
1) Most wedding photography is bright and airy and I like to be different.
2) Colors are richer and more saturated when they’re darker.
3) It’s easier to recover shadow areas in post than it is to recover blown out whites.
When I sat down to edit the first wedding I shot with the Nikon D850, I was shocked by the ability I had to effectively retrieve “clipped” areas that I thought were lost to the ages. It’s almost as if you can HDR (yes, I’m using “HDR” as a verb) any raw file that comes out of the D850.
And, more importantly, the quality holds up very nicely, with smooth blacks and mid-tones throughout the image.
I’d like to point out here that this can be a bit of a war of restraint. With so much leeway to manipulate the histogram, it becomes a question of good taste and how far to push things.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to get carried away, but I do my best to maintain some semblance of reality in my images whenever possible. Even so, I prefer that these decisions be left to me instead of being determined by the limitations of my camera.
Any way you slice the cake, the Nikon D850’s dynamic range is utterly impressive.
Nikon D850 Review | ISO
One of the very first things I noticed about the Nikon D850 was its extremely wide native ISO range, which runs from ISO 64 to 25,600.
Throughout my first handful of weddings with this camera, I’ve found myself shooting at ISO 64 on multiple occasions to help achieve the f/2.8 look in midday sun.
Before the D850, I’d never owned a camera with a base ISO of less than 100, and that little bit of extra leeway really helps in these bright shooting situations.
I very rarely shoot at super high ISOs and, when I do, I almost never push it beyond 2,500 or so. I had the opportunity to shoot some star portraits during a recent engagement session and, as expected, the Nikon D850 held up extremely well.
I don’t have the precise nomenclature/metrics to describe the results in detail, but to my eye, the D850 performed marginally better than the D750 in this regard, which is really saying something.
There’s certainly some detectable noise in the dark areas of these images, but to me, that’s part of the charm of a nighttime photograph.
Nikon D850 Review | Autofocus
Autofocus accuracy is usually a bit difficult to judge because of the ‘human error’ element. If an image is slightly back-focused, for example, how can you be sure the fault lies with the equipment and not with the photographer, or vice versa?
I like to look for trends over a period of time and, after having shot with the Nikon D850 for around a month now, I haven’t encountered any consistent issues to speak of.
Of course, it has meshed better with some lenses than others (e.g. my Nikkor 14-24mm nails focus every time, while the Sigma 85mm Art is a bit more inconsistent), but all in all, the D850 AF system is highly accurate and performs extremely well in low light.
I can’t speak on AF tracking because I haven’t used any sort of continuous focusing mode since my newspaper days more than a decade ago. But based on everything I’ve read in other reviews, the D850 is an upgrade over previous Nikon bodies in this respect.
Before moving on, I’d like to briefly mention the new touch screen focusing feature. This isn’t something that I foresee myself using too frequently, but it did come in handy during the aforementioned nighttime engagement shoot under the stars.
During this shoot, I was able to zoom in on one specific star in live view and simply touch the tip of my finger to the star on the LCD to focus on it. Surprisingly, the star was perfectly in focus every time I tried this.
Truth be told, I didn’t actually want to focus on the star; I wanted to focus on the couple, which, due to lower contrast, wasn’t as effective using this method. But once we broke out the modeling light (a.k.a. the flashlight on my smart phone), I was able to focus on the couple quickly and easily using the touch screen.
I should point out here that I recommend using a shutter release cord or a remote during long exposure photography. There’s always the potential for camera shake when using the touch screen or the shutter release button with longer shutter speeds. But, in this instance, I was super careful and it worked out just fine.
Nikon D850 Review | FPS & Buffer
At seven frames per second, the Nikon D850 is impressively fast for a camera with such a high resolution. And if you purchase the battery grip, you can bump it up to nine frames per second.
You might be asking yourself, “Do wedding photographers really need to shoot that rapidly?” In general, the answer is no, but there are situations in which I find myself switching over to “Ch” (Continuous high) mode and firing away.
For example, the last wedding I shot was a traditional Cherokee ceremony in which the rings were delivered to the officiant by a hawk (pictured above). It’s highly unlikely that I would have been able to capture this shot with the bird perfectly isolated in the sky if I was shooting at a lower frame rate.
But what about the buffer? One word: huge. I like to shoot 14-bit Lossless Compressed Raw files and I can fire away all day long without hitting my buffer’s ceiling.
In the name of science, I just picked up my Nikon D850 and was able to fire off 45 consecutive “Large Raw” files at seven frames per second before experiencing any lag in frame rate. That’s approximately three times more shots than I can get out of my D750 in the same time period.
I think it’s safe to say that I’ll never see those dreaded goose eggs (double zeros) in my D850’s buffer readout while shooting a wedding, which is something that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Nikon D850 Review | Storage
It’s probably a foregone conclusion at this point, but if you’re planning on adding this 45.7 MP beast of a camera body to your arsenal, you’ll also want to budget for some high-speed memory cards.
The Nikon D850 separates itself from its predecessors by paring an XQD card (in place of the familiar CF card) with the SD card. This also means purchasing a new card reader in addition to the cards themselves. And if you have OCD like I do, a new card holder as well.
When I shoot weddings, I copy every image to both the XQD card and the SD card for maximum redundancy, which can be an expensive prospect shooting several thousand frames per event.
I just look at it like an insurance policy, so it doesn’t bother me much, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind if you’re on a budget.
Nikon D850 Review | Battery
I’m no tech expert, but I’m pretty sure the “a” stands for “awesome”, because it lasts a hell of a lot longer than the older version.
In fact, the D850 drains the original EN-EL15 a bit too fast for comfort. The upgraded battery, on the other hand, lasts me throughout an entire wedding shoot and then some.
Nikon D850 Review | Other Features
The Nikon D850 has all of the bells and whistles a gear head could possibly ask for in a camera.
It has WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, which allows you to transfer photos to your smart phone via Nikon’s SnapBridge app. I don’t necessarily see myself using this feature because 1) there’s no time during a wedding day for such shenanigans, and 2) I’m a bit of a Luddite. However, I could definitely see it coming in handy for a lot of other photographers out there.
The Nikon D850 also comes equipped with a new “focus stacking” function, which is a bit like bracketing, just for focus instead of exposure.
Here’s how it works: the camera will take a series of shots, shifting focus slightly in between each frame so that you can later stack the individual photos in Photoshop and create greater depth of field in the final image.
This would come in handy when shooting landscapes or doing macro work in situations where you want to use a larger aperture.
The camera also has 8k time lapse functionality along with a treasure trove of video features that I’ll probably never delve into being a still photographer.
Nikon D850 Review | Price Tag
I’ll keep this short and sweet. Is the D850 worth the $3k+price tag (see latest price here)? For me, it is. Absolutely.
Nikon D850 Review | Conclusion
Not everyone needs a two-pound tank that can take a coffee bath and emerge unscathed. Not everyone needs a 45.7 megapixel sensor with a ginormous buffer and blazing fast write speeds. Not everyone needs outstanding high ISO performance and expansive dynamic range that would make envious the world’s most fervent HDR enthusiasts.
Long story short, the Nikon D850 isn’t meant for everyone. But that’s okay. There are plenty of other great cameras out there if you’re looking for something a bit more economical.
For me, however, this camera makes my life exponentially more enjoyable. And as a wedding photographer, that’s something I’m willing to shell out a little extra cash for any day of the week.
Before taking out a second mortgage on your house, though, please remember one thing: the camera does not make the photographer. Creativity, hard work and dedication are far more meaningful.
I’ll leave you with these words from Russian-American novelist, Ayn Rand. Feel free to substitute “a camera” for “money.”
“Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.”