Let me get this out of the way before we start. The Nikon D850 is the best camera I’ve ever used. It has the best specs. The best auto-focus. The biggest files. This camera was made to blow the pixel-peeping internet away… and it did. When I took my first D850 photo, I said the words ‘Holy Crap!’ out loud in a room by myself. This thing was meant to wow everybody that had dreams of what their next camera specs would do. It succeeded to make most of the internet pixel peepers happy… and that’s part of the problem.
The Nikon D850 is a camera built for a world of tech reviews and conference lecturers that speak more than they shoot. The tech is good enough to make this an incredible tool for almost any photographer in the world. It may be capable of much more, but it still suffers from FEELING like the same old Nikon. In short, Nikon hasn’t yet discovered how to make their cameras ‘fun’ to use, mostly by ignoring the software that could make this spec camera a dream come true in 2017.
We switched to Nikon nearly 3 years ago. Back then I compared Nikon to a PC and Canon to a Mac. As a Mac guy, this comparison killed me, but it was true. 3 years later, I’ve now used the best camera Nikon has ever made… and the analogy is still true. The machine is incredible, but I believe that Nikon lacks the finesse of a good UX and the connection with the modern shooter to make their system as user-friendly as possible.
When I read stories about Nikon’s financial problems and then read stories about Fuji’s success, it’s easy to put the pieces together. Fuji has positioned themselves as a nimble innovator and disruptor… a camera company that is ready to adapt as the whole world of photography changes. They update their cameras constantly. They listen to their users. They may not be as innovative as Tesla, but they treat their owners the same way. Nikon, meanwhile, still seems to see itself atop a perch. They have a good enough view to see what it needs to change, but don’t seem willing to get their hands dirty with what that means in 2017. You can see this in the sample images that got leaked with the D850. You see photos of professional models in wedding dresses shot at f/11. They’re photos that an old-school shooter would drool over, but completely out of touch of where the bulk of their user base is headed. The hardware is a winner. The software lags behind.
This review will cover my favorite things about the D850… and there are A LOT of them. It’s an incredible camera. Please don’t lose sight of that. This machine is next level hardware. We are in the midst of a full conversion to them. However, this review will also feature some of the things that I think Nikon got (or continues to get) wrong. I think that a few small changes would take this camera from an incredible machine to a beloved tool for those of us that shoot almost every day. The good news is that these changes are mostly possible… even now. The bad news is, I’m not sure Nikon will ever listen.
Since there are a million places that you can find super-technical reviews, I’m going to limit mine to 3 categories: What I Love, What’s Just OK and What I Hate. So, here’s a real-world D850 review from someone that uses cameras like they’re going out of style.
WHAT I LOVE
• The Auto Focus
I’ll write this paragraph with the following caveat: As I said in my Facebook Live last week, every camera has great focus when you first get it. I contend that camera focus gets worse as the years go on. I don’t know if this is scientifically true, but it certainly FEELS that way to me. With that said… This autofocus is insane! For the first time ever, I shot 2 wedding receptions in Continuous focus. Even in low light and with outer focus points, I got a lot of keepers. Not using the assist beam allows me to use more outer focus points. Using those allows for more interesting dance compositions. Couple that with the high ISO and it’s a winner. This AF is accurate AF!
Shot with continuous focus and an outer focus point (no AF assist).
• Auto White Balance
This alone is the feature that made me say ‘Wow’ when I took my first frame. I put the camera on Auto WB, pointed it into my extremely tungsten closet and looked at the screen to see a white wall. It was perfect. The D750 rides the strugglebus so hard with tungsten light. This is a revelation. Is this dumb? Maybe. But it will save us time. Time equals more dog walks. These things are important.
• Image Quality – High ISO & Dynamic Range
Ok, so 3 years ago we switched to Nikon for the amazing image quality. We stayed (despite a few reservations) because the images, high ISO and dynamic range were just so stinking good. I’m happy to say that the D850 continues this trend. Not only are the files super clean, but they’re very pliable. I’ve even noticed that Lightroom handles them with more subtlety than D750 files (note: I’m editing DNGs right now)
The high ISO was being promoted as a full stop better than Nikon’s previous bodies. I find that to be about right. I wouldn’t think twice about shooting ISO 6400 with this camera. I’d use 12800 in a pinch and in a really critical circumstance, I’d use 25000. That’s a full stop or stop-and-a-half more than we were willing to go with the D750. Woohoo!
100% comparisons at High ISO
• Focus Peaking
This is one of those features that I saw and thought “Oh great, another feature that only the nerds that don’t actually use cameras care about.” I was wrong. I’m now a focus peaking nerd.
Essentially, when you’re in manual focus the camera will show you (via bright colored spots) what’s in focus. I didn’t think I would care. Then I remembered my tilt-shift lenses. In the past I’d spray and pray almost every tilt-shift shot. Now I just throw it in Live View and focus peak away.
Shot with focus peaking and silent mode.
I didn’t know that this was a thing Canon offered, but boy am I glad Nikon brought it to this camera. With so many places switching to LED lights, the inevitable LED blink is so weird/frustrating/tricky to deal with in many venues. Anti-flicker eliminates it. I don’t know how. I don’t know what magic fairies are at work inside, but its wonderful! We’re shooting in a VERY blinky LED space this weekend and I can’t wait to put it through it’s paces.
• Image Sizes & Medium Raw
Will I use 45 megapixels often? No. Is it incredible to zoom in on a 45 megapixel file? Oh yes. It’s beautiful. I haven’t noticed any of the shakiness that others have reported from other high megapixel cameras either. Granted I’ve never shot with one of those cameras and am not, as you’re finding out, a pixel peeper.
Before you get worried about 12-bit color vs. 14-bit color in medium raw files… don’t. Medium raw is excellent on the D850. There are no color or quality differences that I can see. They nailed this one. Good work Nikon!
Shot in studio (Godox/Cheetah system works great with no updates) at 45 megpixels.
• The Shutter Sound
Is this the stupidest thing you’ve ever seen on a camera review? Yes. Do I care? No. This thing sounds like a real camera. It’s not the sound of a metal plate flopping against a metal wall. It’s soft. It’s pretty quiet. For the first time in my life I feel like my shutter sounds respectable. I’m going the hear this sound millions of times. I’m happy.
WHAT’S JUST OK
• Silent Mode
So, one of Nikon’s biggest marketing pushes with the D850 was touting it’s new completely silent electronic shutter. This feature comes with a few caveats, including the requirement of shooting in live view. No big deal. However, this feature isn’t the ‘wedding perfection’ that Nikon seems to think. The biggest reason, of course, is that shooting live view for an extended period of time is just unrealistic. For a shot or two, it’s an incredible feature, though.
I was super excited for two particular scenarios with this camera: 1. Really quiet moments/ceremonies. 2. When video folks need critical audio. That second point is huge, not just for keeping videographer friends happy, but for keeping real moments real. No one likes recreating moments on a wedding day. This helps.
One downside of silent mode is that the electronic shutter does have horizontal banding in many indoor scenarios. It stinks. It can be mitigated with certain shutter speeds and some trickery, though.
• Touch Screen
This is our first camera with a touch screen. Is it great? Yes, it is. Pinch to zoom is awesome! Having an on screen keyboard to type your copyright info saves tons of time. That stuff is great!
My only gripes about the touch screen are that it’s a little laggy and the implementation isn’t fully baked. It’s kind of like using your car’s navigation instead of Google Maps. It’s like they gave it to you because they should, but cheaped out on the tech and UX to make it great. Make User Experience Great Again!
• Battery Life
Nikon has touted the extended battery life of the new D850 and new batteries. I’m sad to say that it seems about the same to me. I put about 1500-2000 images on one battery. Basically the same as my D750s. Not bad, but not better either.
• XQD Card
XQD cards are fast and excellent (I usually call them QXD cards because I’m stupid). There is no down side. Oh, except for that one down side. The one where you need to get a second mortgage on your house to afford that amount of cards you’ll need.
WHAT I HATE
• Missing Features
So far there are two very simple and very effective features that I miss from this camera. Both are incredibly easy things to update. I just hope Nikon does…
1. Deleting photos from a selected date. This is a feature that is available on the D750 and many Nikon cameras. For those of us that shoot with a giant backup card that never leaves the camera, it’s a super valuable tool. Where did it go? Bring it back Nikon!! (Please don’t flood the comments about deleting in camera, either. We know what we’re doing. Our stuff is backed up.)
2. Viewing images from just one card. For some reason, Nikon built this camera so it was able to display images from a particular folder on a card, but not just display everything from Card 1 or Card 2. That seems so simple. For us wedding shooters that routinely fill multiple folders and shoot Card 2 as backup, it would be great to only see images from the day and not the photos we took 4 weeks ago. This is a little thing that would go a LONG way. How has someone not mentioned this to Nikon yet?
• Multiple Exposures
Another camera, another missed opportunity for Nikon to implement a good way to create multiple exposures. You can either A) create one using two consecutive shots (without seeing a preview of the first) or B) use image overlay to merge two existing images. So what’s the problem? Well Image Overlay works, but its options for blending are very limited. Multiple Exposure has those options but won’t let you preview images. This seems like the easiest little thing to change. The fact that Nikon has never changed it makes me suspect that they don’t have any young, working photographers giving them feedback. Canon figured this out over 5 years ago. It’s not rocket science.
The greatest trick Nikon ever pulled was convincing us that they’ve improved Snapbridge/Wifi. It’s slow. It’s clunky. It requires way too much work to get a photo onto a phone. Dear camera companies, here is what we want: 1. Hire someone with Bluetooth experience. 2. Build something like Airdrop from Apple. One click and it transfers.
Please spare us the endless connections, app opening and waiting for files to transfer. It’s 2017. I can text a friggin pizza emoji and have food show up at my door. Please make this better. We need this. I believe in you.*
*I don’t actually believe in you.
Nikon, for the love of every designer and UX person ever… Please hire someone to remake your menu system. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Finding the setting I need is like finding vegetables at an amusement park.
Hearing the shutter sound for the first time made me feel like Val’s mom seeing her for the first time.
• Quiet Mode
Once again, quiet mode (note: not SILENT mode) is useless on a Nikon camera. It’s the same sound, just slower. Boo!
If someone asked me to summarize my entire thoughts on this camera in a tweet-length review it would be this: Nikon listened to their customers and got the big things right. In the process, they ignored the little things that could make this amazing machine even better.
The best thing I can say about this camera is that it lives up to every bit of those amazing specs that we all saw a few weeks back. Not only that, but the areas where it lacks are very easy software and firmware fixes. My concern is that Nikon will be too busy patting themselves on the back to notice.
Should you buy this camera? Just ask yourself this question: Will the list of specs improve your work? If so, buy it. You won’t be surprised with what’s under the hood of this camera. That’s both a positive and a negative. It’s the best camera I’ve ever used…. And yet I’m still left hoping that it gets even better.
Please feel free to ask questions or leave feedback in the comments. Thanks for reading!