Many Nikon shooters might be wondering how good the Nikon D850 is when compared to its predecessor, the D810, as well as other Nikon DSLRs. I would like to address this question in four separate sub-sections – low-light performance, AF reliability, continuous subject tracking, and live view autofocus performance. Let’s get started with low-light performance.
Autofocus: Low-Light Performance
When it comes to low-light performance, the D850 is without a doubt one of the best cameras on the market. Thanks to its -4 EV low-light sensitivity, the camera is able to acquire focus even in nearly dark environments, something the Nikon D810 could not do. This is a big deal for many photographers who shoot in low light environments (such as portrait and wedding photographers) – being able to acquire focus in dimly-lit rooms, dance floors and reception areas is very important for professionals who rely heavily on the autofocus capabilities of their cameras.
I have tested the Nikon D850 with both prime and zoom lenses, and I can say with confidence that its low-light AF performance is stellar – better than on any other Nikon DSLR I have used to date, with the exception of other high-end DSLRs like Nikon D500 and D5 that also have similar low-light sensitivity in the center focus point. In fact, its low-light performance is hard to beat even by its competition – when testing the D850 side-by-side with a sample Canon 5D Mark IV (both cameras had 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses mounted on them) at night, the D850 was able to consistently outperform the 5D Mark IV using its phase-detection AF. The camera that truly rivaled the D850 was the Sony A9, which did surprisingly well in low-light conditions and focused as good, if not better than the D850, which was rather surprising, considering how poor mirrorless cameras historically have been when compared to DSLRs.
Autofocus: AF Reliability
The Nikon D850 does not disappoint with its excellent autofocus reliability. The combination of the Multi-CAM 20K AF sensor, 181,000-pixel RGB sensor, fast EXPEED 5 CPU, as well as a dedicated AF engine certainly help in providing superb autofocus accuracy, no matter what AF mode you are using. I have used the Nikon D850 with a variety of native and third-party lens options (from Sigma and Tamron) and I did not find any serious AF reliability issues with any of the tested lenses.
Obviously, a big part of making sure that you have high AF reliability is first making sure that you properly check and calibrate each lens you are planning to use on the D850. My existing lenses that behaved well on my D810 did not need any additional calibration on both copies of the D850 that I tested, and I received similar feedback from other Nikon D850 owners as well, which shows that Nikon is most likely doing its best to properly calibrate each camera body to pretty tight specifications before it leaves the factory. The same goes for AF focus point precision – so far our team has not encountered any serious differences in precision between different focus points, which is also good news.
Some of our readers have expressed concerns regarding flange distance inaccuracies of the Nikon D850. Based on the sample units we have been testing, we have not seen any issues with being able to focus at infinity with any of Nikon, Tamron and Sigma lenses we have been testing in the field. We don’t know if this specific issue could be related to Zeiss-branded lenses, but as soon as we get a hold of some Zeiss primes, we will test them with the D850 and report on our findings.
Autofocus: Continuous Subject Tracking
While we have not yet performed extensive tests for continuous subject tracking when photographing fast action such as sports and wildlife, our preliminary tests reveal that the Nikon D850 has excellent continuous subject tracking capabilities that easily outperform such cameras as Nikon D810 and D750 when shooting in all autofocus modes, including 3D, Group Area AF, and Auto-Area AF modes. We cannot see much differences in continuous subject tracking when compared with the Nikon D500, but more tests must be conducted to reach proper conclusions. We will update this section with more information as soon as we have it.
Autofocus: Live View / Contrast Detection AF Performance
Given that the Nikon D850 does not have an on-sensor phase detection autofocus system like some of the Canon DSLRs do and its contrast detection AF is extremely slow, the camera struggles quite a bit with focusing when using Live View. Because of this, the Nikon D850 is pretty frustrating to use in Live View, whether one utilizes the touch-enabled LCD screen or buttons to focus on a particular area of the frame. This is especially true when shooting in low-light conditions – one can see focus go back and forth and sometimes completely fail on a subject, even with enough contrast. Nikon is definitely falling behind big time in this area. Even if it might not yet be possible to integrate phase detection AF into the camera sensor, contrast detection AF speed should be greatly improved, and hopefully not at the expense of AF accuracy/precision…
Shooting Speed (FPS) and Buffer
The Nikon D850 is capable of continuous shooting speed of 7 FPS and it can reach shooting speeds up to 9 FPS when using the MB-D18 battery grip, along with a much larger D5 battery. That’s a lot of speed for a camera that can push 45.7 MP of data! While most photographers will find little use beyond 7 FPS, sports and wildlife photographers might want to invest in the battery grip and a larger capacity battery in order to get those extra 2 FPS, which certainly do matter when shooting fast action. But the bigger question is – can the Nikon D850 accommodate enough images in its buffer to make it a usable action camera? Let’s take a look at the below buffer comparison table and see where the D850 sits when compared to its predecessors:
|DSLR||Image Type||FX Size||DX Size||FX Buffer||DX Buffer|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||41.5 MB||19.4 MB||170||200|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||31.9 MB||14.6 MB||47||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 12-bit||32.4 MB||14.9 MB||21||38|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||51.5 MB||23.9 MB||51||200|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||40.7 MB||18.3 MB||28||97|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Lossless compressed, 14-bit||41.3 MB||18.6 MB||17||29|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 12-bit||34.2 MB||15.9 MB||200||200|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 12-bit||29.2 MB||13.3 MB||58||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 12-bit||29.0 MB||13.2 MB||25||54|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 14-bit||43.8 MB||19.8 MB||74||200|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 14-bit||36.3 MB||16.4 MB||35||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Compressed, 14-bit||35.9 MB||16.2 MB||20||41|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 12-bit||70.3 MB||30.8 MB||55||200|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 12-bit||55.9 MB||24.4 MB||34||78|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 12-bit||57.0 MB||25.0 MB||18||30|
|Nikon D850||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 14-bit||92.0 MB||40.2 MB||29||200|
|Nikon D810||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 14-bit||73.2 MB||31.8 MB||23||46|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||NEF (RAW), Uncompressed, 14-bit||74.4 MB||32.5 MB||16||25|
|Nikon D850||JPEG Fine (Large)||22.0 MB||10.1 MB||200||200|
|Nikon D810||JPEG Fine (Large)||18.1 MB||8.6 MB||100||100|
|Nikon D800 / D800E||JPEG Fine (Large)||16.3 MB||8.0 MB||100||100|
As you can see from the above table, Nikon has significantly increased the buffer capacity of the D850 when compared to the D810 and especially the D800/D800E DSLRs. No matter what image type you choose, the D850 should be able to shoot far more images continuously at the maximum fps, provided that you use fast XQD memory cards such as the Sony 64GB G-Series XQD that Nikon used to yield the above numbers. This also means that if you use faster XQD cards in the future, you will be able to shoot even more images continuously!
When shooting fast action, my personal recommendation would be to shoot either 12-bit or 14-bit lossless compressed – there is no advantage to shooting uncompressed, since you end up with giant files and the buffer size diminishes tremendously. For those who prefer to switch to DX size, the buffer size is capped at 200 images, so you can shoot pretty much non-stop until the memory card fills up. For normal shooting with maximum potential, I would recommend shooting full-size lossless compressed 14-bit images, which should yield a buffer size of roughly 51 images. At 7 FPS, that amounts to roughly 7.3 seconds of continuous shooting, while at 9 fps you will only get about 5.6 seconds of shooting before the camera slows down. That’s plenty of time for most photography needs, but if you need more, you will need to either reduce RAW to 12-bit or switch to DX mode.
Considering that the increase in linear resolution is just 12% between the Nikon D810/D800/D800E and the D850, one should expect that lenses that did well on 36.3 MP sensors to do equally well on the 45.7 MP sensor. So if you are a D810/D800/D800E shooter and you have been happy with the selection of lenses that you currently own, those same lenses should perform just fine on the D850. However, if you are moving up from an older camera like the 12 MP Nikon D700 or even something like a 24 MP D750, you should definitely pay a bit more attention to the lenses you shoot with in order to get the best out of the D850 sensor.
While Nikon has already published a list of recommended lenses for the Nikon D850, I went ahead and revisited the list with a few additions:
- AF-S Fisheye NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR
- PC NIKKOR 19mm f/4E ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.4G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED
- PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.4E ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.8G
- AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G
- AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED
- PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
- AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G
- AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED
- AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 80-400 f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
- AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G
- PC-E Micro NIKKOR 85mm f/2.8D
- AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED
- AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED
- AI AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2D
- AI AF DC-Nikkor 135mm f/2D
- AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF ED
- AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8G ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
- AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR
Nikon wants you to believe that only the latest generation high-end (and expensive) Nikkor lenses should be used on the D850, but that’s not true – I would recommend testing each lens you already own to see how it fares on the D850 before you consider getting rid of it. Obviously, what you shoot is also very important – while most lenses, including some of the older manual focus classics, will resolve plenty of detail on the D850 in the center of the frame, they might struggle in the extreme corners.
Also, don’t forget that there are plenty of great third party options from Sigma, Tamron, Zeiss and other manufacturers. For this review, I used a number of third party lenses such as the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC G2, and Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC G2. They all performed admirably on the Nikon D850 in terms of overall performance. In fact, in many cases, you will find third party lenses to perform even better than their Nikon counterparts, so there is plenty of value in exploring other glass out there!
Table of Contents