Nikon D850 Review

This Nikon D850 review features travel and landscape photos I’ve taken with the new DSLR, its pros & cons, how it performs as compared to the Nikon D810 and D750, and other assorted thoughts about why I think the Nikon D850 is the best all-around DSLR for travel photography.

For starters, a brief overview for those who couldn’t be bothered to read Nikon’s press release but are nonetheless considering dropping $3k on a new DSLR.  Nikon D850 is a 45.7 MP DSLR with hi-res back-side illuminated (BSI) FX-format CMOS sensor and an EXPEED 5 image processing engine. The Nikon D850 also features a 153-point autofocus system, 7 fps continuous shooting speed, full-frame 4K UHD video capabilities, native ISO range of 64 to 25,600, and so many features that you’d be better off just reading the spec sheet, lest I forget something here.

Calling the Nikon D850 a revolutionary camera is probably a stretch. It iterates upon a lot of what has been successful in Nikon’s last three professional grade lines, cherry-picking the best of each and consolidating them into a single camera that truly impresses. As you’ll read in this review, the Nikon D850 is my perfect camera for travel photography. 

As you also might read, a lot of this is regurgitated from my Nikon D850 Review over on Disney Tourist Blog. The key differences between this post and that one are that I’ve condensed this one, replaced the Disneyland photos with ones I shot in Laguna Beach, California (plus one of Yossarian the Cat JUST BECAUSE), and tailored it more towards landscape and travel shooting.

In reality, travel/landscape photography are pretty much the same as Disney photography (don’t tell the landscape photogs who look down their noses at Disney photogs!), so there’s a good amount of overlap.

For a variety of different circumstances, including landscape shooting, it offers unparalleled features and image quality. The Nikon D850 perfectly marries the best features of the D810 and D750 (for those awaiting a D750 replacement, I think this is it), while also pulling some technology from the Nikon D5. As pricey as it might seem, I’d actually say the Nikon D850 is a bargain at “only” $3,300 given the $6,500 price tag of the D5.

As hinted at above, I’ve purchased the Nikon D850 to replace my Nikon D750 and/or Nikon D810. In the last decade since I got into photography, I’ve used a range of cameras, starting with the Nikon D40, and continuing with the D90, D7000, D700, D750, D810, and a few others I’m probably forgetting. I’ve also shot with every camera in the Sony RX100 line, and I even switched to mirrorless for a few months last year, planning to jump ship on Nikon and use the Sony A7R II, before realizing that was not for me.

This is a “real world” Nikon D850 review, meaning that it’s based on my use of the camera in the regular course of taking photos outdoors around Laguna Beach, not arbitrary photos in a sterile lab. While I do think there’s a place for reviews like those (I read them myself), I think they can overlook important considerations since most professional photographers are not shooting lab charts…except perhaps for fun? (I don’t know what people enjoy these days.)

The first feature listed for the Nikon D850 is usually its shiny new 45.7 MP full-frame BSI CMOS sensor capable of capturing fine detail, faster shooting, and better performance at higher ISOs. This brand new sensor is a proprietary design developed in-house by Nikon, bucking years of Nikon using Sony’s (excellent) sensors. According to Nikon, the D850 sensor performs up to one stop better than the D810, despite the higher pixel count.

Nikon has made a lot of other claims about the performance of this sensor as compared to the D810 that sound a bit too good to be true. Setting that and the whole ‘Sony v. Nikon’ thing aside, I will say that the Nikon D850 produces some of the best images I’ve ever seen.

ISO 64 as a base helps with already-exceptional dynamic range and enables you to use a slower shutter speed (just be sure to have your tripod! 😉 ) or wide open aperture in bright light without using neutral density filters. For me, this also enables longer exposures for fireworks or when trying to get cloud movement during a sunrise or sunset. Of course, it’s useful in other situations, as well.

The increased native ISO of 25,600 is a big plus. Both the D750 and D810 maxed out at a native ISO of 12,800, with the worthless expanded ISO being the only way to push that further. Even before getting to ISO 25,600, it’s clear the high ISO performance has been improved here. ISO performance is noticeably better on the Nikon D850 at ISO 6400 and above.

Even when pixel-peeping on photos from the Nikon D850 that I’ve really pushed in post processing, the color and dynamic range results both look spectacular. I’d go as far as to say that the Nikon D850 produces the nicest photos of any Nikon DSLR ever.

With that said, the Nikon D850 only offers an incremental improvement in image quality over its predecessors. This is consistent with recent DSLRs, so it should not come as a surprise. The Nikon D850 is not a “revolutionary” camera in terms of image quality. If you already have a D600 (what I’d dub the start of the current “generation” of Nikon DSLRs) or higher, you’re only going to see minor gains in terms of what the sensor can deliver.

We’re already at a point when raw files can have their exposure adjusted by 4-5 stops and still be usable, so I’d say we’ve sort of peaked in terms of DSLR image quality, dynamic range flexibility, and color depth. At this point, I think most technological leaps we’re going to see are in terms of camera size (probably on the mirrorless and phone front).

Prior to purchasing the Nikon D850, my main hope was that the best aspects of the D810 and D750 sensors would be merged, and you could say, despite the new sensor, that’s exactly what happened. The Nikon D850 features all of the upside of those two camera sensors, with none of the downside. The Nikon D850 has ISO 64, incredible dynamic range, great color rendition, and exceptional high ISO performance all in one package.

In terms of that 47.5 MP resolution, most people are going to view this as a wonderful asset, but I’m inclined to disagree if you’re a travel photographer, and not a strict always-shoot-from-a-tripod-only-in-the-best-available-light kind of shooter.

Sure, more resolution is great if you’re wanting to make large prints or are in need of high resolution when cropping. For many landscape photographers, higher resolution is a huge selling point, and the Nikon D850 delivers that in spades…as can be easily gleaned from the specs…so no need to fixate on that.

I do think there are a few legitimate concerns with the higher resolution, the first of which is file sizes. Uncompressed, 14-bit raw files can top 100 MB. With lossless compression (which I use and recommend), you’re looking at around 50 MB. Still a lot, but significantly better. Not only do these files eat up memory card and hard drive space, but they also can be a chore to process if you’re using an older computer or one lacking in RAM.

There are two ways around that. The first is upgrading computers and storage…meaning that $3k camera is suddenly a $6k investment. That’s a lot to stomach all at once. Alternatively, you can use the sRAW and mRAW formats selectively, which really reduce file size and processing requirements.

In my other review, I spend a lot of time discussing these formats. Suffice to say, even though they are 12-bit, they are quite ‘durable’ files, and in many circumstances while editing, I could not discern any difference between these files and the full size ones (aside from them being smaller, obviously). Nikon debuted options like this with the D810, but they pointless gimmicks, barely offering more than a standard JPEG file. Unless you’re a disciple of the Cult of Ken Rockwell, you better be shooting raw.

The bottom line with regard to sRAW and mRAW files is that they are at least good enough in a variety of everyday travel scenarios. To be sure, if there’s a sunset with an explosion of color (or really anytime it’s important enough for me to shoot from a tripod), I’ll be using the full-size raw files. In scenarios where color depth or post processing don’t matter quite as much, I’ll be using mRAW or sRAW.

Let’s say you want to snap a pic of your hotel room, In-N-Out Burger meal, or out the airplane window to post on Instagram (now easy with built-in WiFi!) or for use in a trip report later. All of those scenarios are well-suited to the smaller file formats. I personally plan on using them extensively for those very purposes.

Another potential issue that weighed on my mind before using the Nikon D850 was handheld shutter speed. In fact, one pre-production “review” I read suggested that you might never want to use the camera without a tripod due camera shake having a more pronounced effect due to the higher resolution.

This was problematic for me, as I far prefer shooting without a tripod whenever possible. (I’m a quantity over quality photographer–all of the photos in this post were shot during a single sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach!)

To be fair, this has been a noticeable issue in the past. It was a big deal with the Nikon D800, and to a lesser degree the Nikon D810. In several occasions when I knew I’d be shooting handheld, I opted for the Nikon D750 over the D810 for that very reason.

Well, for whatever reason, it is not a huge issue with the Nikon D850. At least, not in my testing. I’ve been able to use my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 handheld with shutter speeds as slow as 1/20th of a second and my Sigma 14mm f/1.8 and Nikon 8-15mm fisheye lenses as slow as 1/13th of a second.

So far, this might sound like Nikon has basically just iterated on cameras that are now ~4 years old, and the Nikon D850 is the natural–and expected–successor to those cameras as technology improves. In terms of all things that fall under the penumbra of ‘image quality’, I think that’s a fair assessment. For me, the IQ gains the Nikon D850 offers are simply icing on the cake.

The cake itself with the Nikon D850 is its features. Or, as I wrote earlier, this is where the revolution lies with the Nikon D850. While these don’t necessarily have an impact on the final image, these new features will make photography easier and more fun for me (as if it could get more fun), and will also put me in a position to miss fewer shots. If I can now nail a shot that I would have missed…well, that’s the ultimate improvement in image quality.

The first of these is its autofocus. The Nikon D850 is like a quantum leap forward in terms of AF. This is the same no-nonsense autofocus system in the Nikon D5, with a total of 153 focus points, with 99 cross type points, and sensitivity down to  -4EV.

What does all that jargon mean? I’ve been able to autofocus in pretty much complete darkness. Given the results I’ve seen thus far, I think the Nikon D850 will be able to autofocus when shooting the Milky Way. I’m not even kidding. This might be the single most important feature that the Nikon D850 has added, especially as compared to the D810.

Another crucial feature is that the Nikon D850 shoots at 7 frames per second. Unless I’m photographing wildlife in a National Park, this is total overkill for me, but just for kicks I held the shutter down while using the camera the other day just to hear that speed in action. Despite how little I’ll use that, it’s nice to have. I don’t think landscape and wildlife photographers are mutually exclusive categories, so it’s nice to have an all-in-one solution.

The LCD screen is another major jump forward for me. Not only is it a higher resolution, but it’s also an tilting touchscreen. I love being able to tilt the screen to get low without pressing my face on the ground. The touchscreen is nice for zooming in when reviewing images, but it’s not a must-have for me.

The Nikon D850 viewfinder is large and bright, and another nice gain for me. The battery life is also superior to past full frame Nikons, with the D850 capable of over 1,800 shots on a single charge.

The Nikon D850 is also built like a tank. As with its predecessors, the D850 has a full magnesium-alloy frame and feels incredibly sturdy. I love the new joystick for changing the focus point, and the addition of the F2 button on the back is a huge plus for me. Backlit buttons are also something I never knew I needed before using this.

Finally, the Nikon D850 is that it just feels right. Despite being slightly larger, the form factor on the Nikon D850 is nicer than on the D810 or D750. I really like the deep grip, which is really comfortable to the hand. Despite the addition of several buttons, I’ve already found the Nikon D850 easy to control. This was a huge hangup for me with the Sony A7R II, but it’s still a YMMV type of thing.

The Nikon D850 is the best camera I’ve ever used, surpassing the Nikon D750 & D180 and the Sony A7R II. It’s also the most well-rounded camera I’ve ever used. While travel and landscape photography are my focus, I do a variety of other shooting, and I also see the D850 being pretty well-suited to just about every scenario: weddings, portraiture, and even the lost art of taking photos in front of trendy walls.

Still, that does not mean the Nikon D850 is a necessary purchase or upgrade for every photographer. Who should buy it? First and foremost, anyone looking for the absolute best DSLR quality. I see little reason for most people jumping into the DSLR world to buy a Nikon D5 or any pro-grade Canon DSLR.

Next, those who have been shooting with their existing Nikon FX DSLR for a while, and are looking for something more well-rounded, or want any of the features listed above. Likewise, anyone wanting to move from a crop sensor to a full frame camera with a healthy budget should buy the Nikon D850. Those are the two obvious groups that should buy this camera without any hesitation.

Then there are the closer calls. If you are primarily looking for a bump in image quality, I’m not so sure the Nikon D850 is a good purchase. It does offer an improvement, but that is incremental and a tad difficult to justify. If your camera bag is lacking in any important regard, a new lens or two will likely have a bigger impact on your photos.

Ultimately, I stand by my claim that the Nikon D850 is a revolutionary camera, despite only marginal gains in image quality. The principle upside of the Nikon D850 is impossible to measure with lab charts, and it’s this feature-set that does a better job of facilitating photo-taking. This camera performs exceptionally in every shooting scenario I’ve put it through thus far, the files look gorgeous straight out of camera but also have a ton of latitude for adjustments in post processing, it’s ultra-fast in every conceivable way, its build-quality is exceptional, and it has a deep feature-set the extent of which I’m still discovering. The Nikon D850 is one of the greatest cameras I’ve ever held, and its new features and merging of two cameras I previously loved all make the Nikon D850 a grand slam for me.

If you do want to purchase the Nikon D850, we recommend ordering it from Amazon or B&H Photo. (Ordering via these affiliate links helps support the site and doesn’t cost you anything!)

Your Thoughts…

If you’ve used the Nikon D850, what did you think of the DSLR? Are you interested in the Nikon D850? Have you already bought it? Have any additional questions or comments about the camera? Please ask or share below, and I’ll offer my feedback!

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2 replies
  1. Sanj
    Sanj says:

    Great write up. Have you got rid of your Sony gear? The D850 looks great but I’d be worried about the extra weight and loss of things like live exposure preview and eye AF that I’ve got spoiled with since moving to Sony. That said Sony lens prices are eye watering which sometime make me think about switching back. Any regrets?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Yeah, I did get rid of my Sony mirrorless gear. The problem with that system is that the lens weights (not to mention prices!) are all more than their Nikon counterparts. So, in my case, carrying 4-5 lenses more than offsets the lower weight of the camera.

      I don’t have any regrets thus far. I’d definitely revisit mirrorless in the future if another manufacturer releases a camera and lenses that are high quality and small.

      Reply

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